Mikel Arteta had seen this film before. He saw Pep Guardiola racing towards the halfway line, well outside his technical area, to give the linesman a piece of his mind.
The Manchester City manager had just watched referee Damir Skomina choke. Leroy Sane was clear with 18 minutes left of a relentlessly absorbing night, not a Hoffenheim defender in sight, felled by Oliver Baumann. A definitely penalty and only what the magnificent Sane deserved.
Skomina was in a trance and did not signal a goal kick for some time. Guardiola was understandably apoplectic, and not for the first time after a flurry of questionable decisions. Nobody could have blamed him had his emotions completely spilled over again.
MATCH FACTS, PLAYER RATINGS AND MATCH ZONE
HOFFENHEIM: Baumann 5; Akpoguma 6.5, Posch 5.5, Hoogma 6; Brenet 7, Grillitsch 7 (Bittencourt 82), Demirbay 7 (Hack 89), Kaderabek 7; Szalai 6 (Kramaric 54), Joelinton 6, Belfodi 7
Subs not used: Kobel, Nelson, Grifo, Amade.
Goals: Belfodil 1
Manager: Julian Nagelsmann
MANCHESTER CITY: Ederson 6; Walker 6, Kompany 6, Otamendi 5 (Stones 64, 7), Laporte 5.5; Fernandinho 6.5, Gundogan 6 (B Silva 68), D Silva 7.5; Sterling 7 (Mahrez 75, 6.5), Aguero 7.5, Sane 8.
Subs not used: Muric, Danilo, Gabriel Jesus, Zinchenko.
Goals: Aguero 7, Silva 87
Bookings: Otamendi, Fernandinho, Walker, Aguero
Manager: Pep Guardiola
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia) 5.
Arteta noticed what was happening, hauled his boss back to their box, and the assistant’s savviness might have averted another continental incident.
This was Guardiola’s first Champions League game back after a one-match ban and at 1-1, fearing another failure to win in what is proving a troubling group. Arteta could not stop Guardiola with three minutes left on the clock though and he would not have wanted to either.
David Silva became a poacher, pounced on Stefan Posch’s lapse inside Hoffenheim’s area and nudged past Baumann.
A result, three points and all after going behind inside 43 seconds. City are not doing things easily at the moment but are finally up and running in Europe.
‘Maybe for the future it’s going to be really good for us to live this,’ Guardiola said. ‘You cannot go to quarters or semis without living it. We are a step below the history of Liverpool, the Spanish teams and Bayern Munich. A quarter-final for us is a huge success.’
That Guardiola shouted at the fourth official at full-time told the story. So too that he pointedly shook the hands of the three main officials while gesturing. Vincent Kompany spoke of a ‘trend’ in refereeing decisions. Guardiola ‘preferred not to talk’ for fear of another suspension. They feel aggrieved with what UEFA are serving them right now.
But, for now at least, they can feel satisfied at negotiating what was an exceptionally tricky – and exceptionally absorbing – night. Silva saw to that, already his third of the season.
City were breathless and brainless in equal measure, architects of manoeuvring Hoffenheim out of their shape but also of their own downfall before the break. City had gone behind long before Aymeric Laporte, out of sorts at left back, had watched helplessly as Ederson bailed him out to save from Ishak Belfodil following a blind back pass. They had been forewarned of Beklfodil’s dangerous lurking, the Algerian sending this place wild in the first minute.
Nicolas Otamendi was at fault, unsure of his positioning as Kerem Demirbay split the central defenders – Vincent Kompany attempted to play offside – and Belfodil slipped under Ederson. City needed a wake-up call.
They were level seven minutes later. Aguero scrambled it beyond Baumann but the equaliser owed as much to Silva and Sane. Silva’s dead-eyed precision set Sane away behind his marker, angling towards goal in a diagonal in trademark fashion and Aguero simply poached the cut back.
Guardiola was agitated last night. Even irritated at times. With his team and Skomina, whom he had heated words with after the Slovenian pulled play back following Silva’s smart quick throw-in setting Sane away.
City had more of the ball, more of the chances, but Hoffenheim – 12th in the Bundesliga – were never truly under siege. Nagelsmann is a master of the one-off game and devoted serious time to the arrival of his Spanish idol, who he has been messaging.
The squad spent countless hours studying footage on a big screen, described as a wall, at their training ground while rehearsing moves. Nagelsmann – the 31-year-old coaching prodigy who recently rejected Real Madrid’s advances – described his planned tactics as ‘bold’ beforehand and Hoffenheim had not started in a 3-4-3 system this season.
A confident prediction but correct too: it initially caught City unawares. ‘He’s a trainer with great imagination,’ Guardiola said.
Aguero, potentially in the form of his career in this calendar year, was brutish up front, drawing a superb save from Baumann and firing a volley wide on the stretch.
Sane was key to the latter, the creation of that chance saw the winger put on his skies and slalom past four blue shirts in a ridiculously tight space.
He has rediscovered that magic from last season and it will not have gone unnoticed by his manager that he mopped up when Ederson completely misjudged a long ball as Hoffenheim countered 30 yards from goal too.
‘He was quite good, yeah,’ Guardiola smiled. ‘I don’t want to talk too much as he is still young and has to learn. I don’t think he has the quality to play inside like Bernardo but outside he is a special, special player.’
Fernandinho could count himself lucky not to have received a second booking after fouling Pavel Kaderabek on the break and the hosts found a second wind.
Then Hoffenheim – a village housing only 3,272 residents – screamed red when Kyle Walker went through Kaderabek with studs showing.
City screamed frustration when Sane went down. They screamed louder when Silva got them out of jail and that is what matters.