Josko Gvardiol on Wednesday stifled the threat of Manchester City star Erling Haaland before scoring himself to earn RB Leipzig a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their round-of-16 matchup in the UEFA Champions League.
The Croatia centerback, nicknamed “Little Pep” because of the similarities of his last name with that of City manager Pep Guardiola, headed home the equalizer in the 70th minute after Leipzig finally got to grips with the English champions.
City dominated the first half without Haaland, their top scorer, getting a sight on goal and Riyad Mahrez netted the 27th-minute opener after Ilkay Gundogan flicked through a pass from Jack Grealish.
As Haaland grew frustrated in the second half, City lost control of the game and Leipzig posed more of a threat, creating the better of the chances.
“What do you expect, that we are playing a friendly game here?” Guardiola said when asked why his team were unable to retain their domination into the second half. “How many games have you seen from Leipzig? You expect us to come here and win 0-5? That is not a reality.”
It leaves the match in the balance heading into the second leg in Manchester on March 14 as City continue their bid for a first Champions League title.
Guardiola conducted a mini-debrief with his players on the field after the final whistle, telling them to stay positive after seeing them throw away their advantage after a first-half performance that could have led to more than just Mahrez’s 20th Champions League goal.
Haaland had only seven touches before halftime — none of them coming in Leipzig’s penalty area — and he had only one opportunity in the whole match, when he got free down the right midway through the second half and snatched at a shot that dribbled wide.
Leipzig’s extra intensity and aggression paid off as the Germany-based team who were Champions League semi-finalists in 2019-2020 finally showed why they had lost just one of their 20 previous matches in all competitions.
“We started to play, to fight,” Leipzig manager Marco Rose said. “Really different to the first half. We were too passive in every situation. We had no power. In the second half, we were the same level [as City]. Better late than never.”
Benjamin Henrichs, who came on as a halftime substitute, side-footed wide when he was one on one with goalkeeper Ederson, who got down well to deny Andre Silva.
However, Ederson was left stranded when Marcel Halstenberg swung over a left-wing cross and 21-year-old Gvardiol — one of the best defenders at last year’s FIFA World Cup and among Europe’s most sought-after young players — got above Ruben Dias to nod the ball into an unguarded net.
There was a bizarre incident in the final seconds when Mahrez curled a cross into the area and a header from City midfielder Rodri appeared to be punched away by Henrichs as he defended his body with both arms.
City’s players appealed for a penalty, but the referee was unmoved.
When Leipzig last visited City’s Etihad Stadium, they were routed 6-3 in a wild group-stage game in the Champions League last season.
Christopher Nkunku scored a hat-trick for Leipzig on that night and the France striker came on as a substitute in the second half, stepping up his sharpness after a left-knee injury sustained in training in November last year just before flying out to the World Cup.
Nkunku might be fit to start the second leg, when City should have Kevin de Bruyne available again. The playmaker was absent on Wednesday because of an illness.
In Milan, Italy, Romelu Lukaku was back in form after ending his goalscoring drought last weekend as Inter won 1-0 against Porto.
A strike on Wednesday and the weekend score were Lukaku’s first goals since October last year and took his tally to just four since returning from Chelsea in the off-season as the Belgium forward has struggled with injury and poor form.
“We’re really happy with the win, it was too important to get a result,” said Lukaku, who came on as a substitute. “We wanted to score a second goal, too, but we still managed to win the match and I’m happy.”
“I went through really difficult months with the injury, but I’m happy to be available again and happy to have helped get the win,” he said. “I’m not individualistic, I only think about Inter, about doing the best for Inter.”
Porto midfielder Otavio was sent off following a second yellow card 12 minutes from fulltime.
He had received his first booking for a tussle with Inter’s Federico Dimarco at the end of the first half.
The second leg is on March 14 in Porto.
“I think it [the second yellow] was right, but the last 10 minutes were difficult for us,” Porto coach Sergio Conceicao said, adding that “there were also Inter players that deserved to be booked.”
“Lautaro [Martinez] should have got a yellow card and he wouldn’t have played the return leg if he had... I don’t know if that was right, you decide,” Conceicao said.
Lukaku replaced Edin Dzeko in the 58th minute and went close to breaking the deadlock, but his cross-shot flashed past the far post.
However, he then scored with four minutes remaining. His header from Nicolo Barella’s cross came off the left post, but he tucked away the rebound.
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