Pep Guardiola called Manchester City’s performance “incredible” as they lost at Tottenham on Tuesday. With the greatest of respect to this magnificent manager, it was not the only thing he got wrong on this night.
Spurs may have the narrowest of advantages to take to Etihad Stadium after their Champions League quarter-final first leg, but no-one can seriously dispute that their victory was fully deserved.
Manchester City’s display was a long way short of incredible. In fact, for long periods it was a performance under stress and pressure as Spurs played with an intensity that matched the atmosphere inside their magnificent new stadium.
Guardiola is starting to get a reputation for over-thinking his Champions League strategies at Manchester City and while no-one would bet a large sum against them still advancing to the semi-final, he and his players have made life difficult for themselves.
Eyebrows were sent skywards when the City teamsheet arrived before kick-off and they stayed there as some of Guardiola’s key selections failed to justify their inclusion.
Make no mistake, Guardiola gets pretty much everything right as a manager but even the best occasionally stumble and there was something about the way City set up that just did not sit right.
Yes, Guardiola suffered the late loss of Bernardo Silva to injury but there was none of the usual fluency to his side. Instead, there were hints of frailty at the back that manifested themselves instantly when Harry Kane charged down Nicolas Otamendi’s attempted clearance in the opening seconds.
There was an element of caution about City’s line-up, with Ilkay Gundogan preferred to Kevin de Bruyne. This was perhaps understandable, though, given the memories of being blown away by three first-half goals in last season’s all-English Champions League quarter-final at Liverpool.
City could not recover a year ago and for all the disappointment of defeat here, at least they are still right in the hunt for the last four. Maybe that Anfield nightmare was lurking at the back of Guardiola’s mind, and he refused to countenance a repetition.
Where Guardiola can be questioned is in his selection of Riyad Mahrez ahead of Leroy Sane.
When Sane and De Bruyne were finally introduced for Mahrez and David Silva with two minutes left, it was too little, too late.
Mahrez has not represented good value at £60m since his arrival from Leicester City. He was mediocre and marginalised here. Spurs were wise to one or two of his more familiar tricks and he faded from view before his late substitution.
Guardiola, understandably, has to manage his many resources as City fight on so many fronts, chasing the historic quadruple of Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup, but it was still hard to make a logical case for Mahrez’s selection.
And Guardiola’s deployment of Fabian Delph at left-back – for only a third start of 2019 – represented an accident waiting to happen.
The accident did happen – not in the injury to Kane, caused as much by the England captain’s committed challenge as any other factor – but when Delph switched off completely as Son Heung-min chased to the byeline in the 78th minute before turning and shooting underneath Ederson for the winner.
Guardiola will regard a one-goal deficit as manageable, but he will demand a lot more from Manchester City in the return leg.
Spurs and manager Mauricio Pochettino, in contrast, were almost faultless.
Their arrival in this opulent new home has been timed perfectly to coincide with this game, the sort of occasion Spurs will have had in mind when these grand surroundings were on the drawing board.
New grounds need big occasions to build an identity. Victories like this add lustre and character to the bricks and mortar.
Pochettino had his Spurs team pitched perfectly, intense but controlled, disciplined but full of threatening intent.
This was a footballing and physical battle in which Spurs prevailed.
Kane’s injury, which looked long-term from the moment he was helped down the tunnel by Spurs staff with another ankle problem, cast a cloud on the triumph. He will be missed at Etihad Stadium.
But his absence seems to inspire Son, who led from the front after Kane departed.
Spurs have a lead and a clean sheet to protect in Manchester, plus the incentive of a semi-final against Juventus or Ajax.
They will believe it can be achieved, even without Kane, and who can blame them after the manner in which Pochettino’s side demonstrated great self-belief, resilience and a refusal to be deflected from their task?
Spurs survived Sergio Aguero’s early penalty, saved by Hugo Lloris – after being awarded despite barely a soul inside the stadium noticing that Danny Rose had handled Raheem Sterling’s shot until referee Bjorn Kuipers heard the VAR voice in his ear.
Pochettino’s management in the Champions League has been a masterclass after defeat at Inter Milan and a draw away to PSV Eindhoven left them struggling to get out of their group.
Spurs demonstrated their mettle to get a draw in Barcelona to go through to the knockout stage before putting away Borussia Dortmund in emphatic fashion in the last 16.
Such brushes with elimination have led to glory in the Champions League before – Spurs will feel momentum is with them.
It will be another night on the edge at Etihad Stadium.