Erling Haaland impressed but it was Phil Foden who, finally, scored to give Manchester City a precious, slender advantage in this surprisingly tense and edgy Champions League quarter-final.
Borussia Dortmund will return to Germany with a sense of grievance and not least as yet another exciting young tyro, Jude Bellingham, was wrongly pulled up in the first-half by the hapless Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan when he should have been allowed to score. “This ref needs checking,” tweeted injured Dortmund forward Jadon Sancho. He was right.
So where are we with this tie? It is evenly poised even if a strangely subdued City will still travel to next week’s second leg as favourites to reach the semi-finals for only the second time and the first under Pep Guardiola after exiting in the last eight for the past three campaigns.
But it is far from a given. They will have wanted and expected a bigger margin of victory but, in the end, will just be relieved to have won while Dortmund belied their struggles in the Bundesliga with the kind of threatening performance that shows this is not over. And they have that away goal. For City that famed quadruple is looking a little more under threat.
Haaland led the way, as did Bellingham. Haaland hummed the Champions League anthem as he lined up and looked like a man on a mission with City among his suitors even if it was one of their present stars — their biggest star — in Kevin de Bruyne who appeared set to steal the show.
It felt like a night for big statements to be made, intrigue and futures to be defined with the TV cameras training on Haaland and the eyes wandering to the team-sheet where Guardiola placed Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero among his substitutes. So it was a false nine — in Bernardo Silva — against a ‘wished for’ nine in Haaland but it was the jewel in City’s crown, the centrepiece and captain who put them ahead.
It was a loose pass by former Liverpool midfielder Emre Can that set City free. Riyad Mahrez intercepted and quickly found De Bruyne who strode forward and held off attempts to pull him back. He picked out Foden who crossed low with Mahrez retrieving the ball beyond the far post, just keeping it in, to tee up De Bruyne who slammed his shot low into the net from six yards. Bang. One-nil. Out of nothing.
But Dortmund threatened. Already Bellingham had beaten Kyle Walker and drawing a smart save from Ederson. At 17 the England international became the second-youngest starter in a Champions League quarter-final and was wonderfully composed. He looked the part and showed he belonged on this stage when he alertly stole in to take the ball away from Ederson as the City goalkeeper flicked it up before attempting to clear on the edge of his own penalty area.
As Bellingham rolled the ball into the unguarded net, Hategan had already blown his whistle believing the midfielder had fouled Ederson — if anything it was the other way round — so the Var could not intervene. The Var had already done so with the Italian official telling the referee to check the screen after he wrongly awarded City a penalty when Can stuck out a foot and Rodri went down clutching his face. The only part of his body that could have been touched was his knee and it was ridiculous play-acting from Rodri with the decision rightly over-turned.
Finally, Haaland had a chance and there was a thrilling glimpse of what he was all about as he ran onto Mahmoud Dahoud’s pass, was too quick and strong for Ruben Dias and got his shot away with Ederson doing well to divert it with his trailing leg. Haaland was furious at missing but maybe, also, Dias had done enough to off-balance him as he sprinted clear.
Either way it was another let-off and it felt laboured from City — Rodri was poor — with De Bruyne the only one providing any impetus as he scampered down the right and pulled the ball back to Foden who side-footed a shot straight at goalkeeper Marwin Hitz. He kicked it clear but Foden should have scored and he went close again when Hitz spilled his powerful low drive after another De Bruyne pass. There was a third big chance spurned by Foden, one of his own creation, as he dragged his shot across goal.
Those misses felt costly and so it appeared when Bellingham slipped the ball to Haaland who played a fine first-time pass that was smartly collected by Marco Reus who beat Ederson and drew Dortmund deservedly level. It was the first Champions League game Haaland had not scored in this season — after 10 goals in his previous six appearances — but he played his part.
To their credit City responded; they found a way with De Bruyne inevitably involved as he sent in a deep cross that Ilkay Gundogan — played onside by Mats Hummels’ backside — cushioned into Foden’s path. In the 90th minute, Foden’s aim was finally true and City claimed the win. At the final whistle, Haaland sought out Foden and exchanged words and shirts. Will they both be in City blue next season? Possibly. What is also not clear is who will go through this tie.