This was not an exhibition of the sparkling, free-flowing play that makes Manchester City favourites to win this year’s Champions League but it was job done against visitors in Dinamo Zagreb who were intent on taking a point. Goals from the substitutes’ bench, scored by Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden, ensured that Pep Guardiola’s side earned the victory their dominance deserved.
The reigning champions of Croatia made things difficult. The score was still goalless at half time and Dinamo would only breached twice, despite several City penalty claims, some more justified than others. Guardiola was so incensed with one decision that he was shown a yellow card by referee Serdar Gozubuyuk. By the final whistle, his counterpart Nenad Bjelica had joined him in the book.
Dinamo led Group C at the start of the night after their unexpected 4-0 thrashing of Atalanta in the opening round. They were never likely to replicate that scoreline last night, while City could have scored four or more in the opening half hour. Bernardo Silva skewed two volleys, Sergio Aguero failed in one attempt to round the visiting goalkeeper and Ilkay Gundogan came closest of all, striking the crossbar.
City’s best opportunity fell to David Silva, though. The ball came to him quickly, first off Kevin Theophile-Catherine’s hand and then Aguero’s back, but the City captain could still do better than the scuffed finish from close-range that bobbled wide. VAR, meanwhile, did not intervene on the potential handball. Quite how Theophile-Catherine had not contravene the new regulations was not clear.
All these chances came in a quick spell of no more than 10 minutes. A goal felt imminent then, but the remainder of the first half petered out into nothing. Even with City boasting some 80 per cent of possession, Dinamo were settling in to an organised and coherent shape, sitting deep inside their own half, putting their bodies in the line of duty to block every City attack.
Bjelica’s side were posing enough questions for Guardiola to seek fresh answers. Not long into the second half, Sterling replaced Bernardo. Almost immediately, he had seen a shot blocked from dead centre of the goal. Another would follow shortly after, thanks to Rodri’s smart pass out wide and Riyad Mahrez’s low cross from the left. Sterling bundled in at close range, with help from a deflection.
Dinamo’s travelling support took off their t-shirts in protest and Guardiola knelt down on his haunches in celebration. Normal service had been resumed by the substitute, but there was a hint of relief around the Etihad. Victory was now all but assured given the poverty of Dinamo’s attack and City attempted to start running up the score, but further penalty claims went ignored.
Petar Stojanovic’s tackle on Sterling had Guardiola tearing off his jacket and shouting at the fourth official. He was booked for his dissent, and may be embarrassed to notice that the Dinamo player had won the ball outside the box. Aguero was denied a spot-kick too, despite a lengthy VAR review. But in the fifth minute of stoppage time, the second of the night – and the second of Foden’s Champions League career – arrived. With Dinamo caught upfield, City pounced and countered. Sterling’s pass to slip the teenager inside was sublime, as was the finish. It was a beautifully simple goal on a less than straightforward evening.