Champions League holders Manchester City made a winning start to the defence of their title as Julian Alvarez scored twice to spearhead a second-half comeback which defeated Red Star Belgrade 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium.
Red Star, Serbian champions for the past six years, have fine European pedigree having won the elite competition in 1991, and they took a shock lead on the stroke of half-time when Osman Bukari’s strike was allowed to stand after a VAR review for offside (45).
But Pep Guardiola’s side – who recorded 22 shots during a one-sided first half – rallied to ensure their would be no upset as Alvarez combined with Erling Haaland to round Omri Glazer and score within two minutes of the restart.
The Argentine would celebrate a second when Glazer, whose heroics had kept Red Star level, inexplicably punched the Argentine’s curling free-kick into his own net (60).
Rodri, the matchwinner against Inter Milan in June’s final, produced a trademark finish (73) to seal the victory as City extended their unbeaten run at home in the Champions League to 27 matches.
Man City: Ederson (6), Walker (6), Dias (6), Ake (7), Gomez (7), Rodri (8), Matheus Nunes (7), Bernardo Silva (6), Alvarez (9), Foden (7), Haaland (6).
Subs: Doku (8), Akanji (7), Lewis (n/a), Phillips (n/a), Bobb (n/a).
Red Star Belgrade: Glazer (8), Mijailovic (6), Djiga (6), Dragovic (7), Rodic (6), Hwang (5), Stamenic (5), Bukari (7), Ivanic (5), Mitrovic (6), Ndiaye (5).
Subs: Olayinka (6), Krasso (6), Kangwa (n/a), Lucic (n/a), Degenek (n/a).
Player of the match: Julian Alvarez.
How City came from behind to win
Pep Guardiola had said winning the Champions League would be easier for City now they have finally claimed their maiden title – and he had a consoling word for the Red Star manager Barak Bakhar at the final whistle having witnessed his side produce 37 attempts across the 90 minutes.
Manchester City had 83 touches in the opposition box but trailed at the interval.
“The last two games I didn’t know how many chances we missed,” Guardiola said afterwards.” We played really, really good but we were not able to score goals. We were consistent and in the end we won the game.
“Having 22 shots on goal [in the first half] means you are playing really good. It has to be the responsibility of the people in front to have to score the goals. If we scored two goals early in the beginning it would’ve been completely different.
“We played like West Ham another fantastic game. We missed chances but we were able to create these many sorts of chances and we will win the games.”
Matheus Nunes was handed his first Manchester City start as the holders began the defence of their crown at home to 1991 winners Red Star Belgrade.
Sergio Gomez was also handed a surprise start in the Group G clash at the Etihad Stadium while Nathan Ake returned to the side.
Jeremy Doku, Manuel Akanji and Josko Gvardiol were the players to make way from the weekend win at West Ham but all were included on the bench.
City won the competition for the first time in their history three months ago in Istanbul, and yet in spite of total domination during the opening 45 minutes, Bukari silenced the Etihad when he latched onto Marko Stamenic’s slick pass and showed his composure to finish beyond Ederson.
The Portuguese officials initially deemed Bukari to have drifted offside, but replays showed he had been played on by Ruben Dias.
By then, City ought to have been out of sight. Alvarez and Rodri had early chances saved and Glazer would also frustrate Nathan Ake and Phil Foden, whose downward header was straight at the Red Star goalkeeper.
But the most glaring miss was from Haaland, who continued his erratic finishing from Saturday’s 3-1 win at West Ham when he headed against the bar from point-blank range. Bernardo Silva limped off before half-time, replaced by the lively Jeremy Doku with Guardiola admitting he is yet to speak to the club doctor for a full assessment.
Red Star clinched a record 34th league title in comprehensive fashion last season, finishing the campaign unbeaten and dropping only 14 points along the way – but they were eventually undone within 73 seconds of the restart.
Alvarez was the bright spark and looked sharp throughout the contest as he combined with Haaland to follow his run into the box and round Glazer for a brilliant finish from an acute angle.
Kyle Walker then thought he had put City ahead moments later only to be ruled offside.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, the hosts nudged in front on the hour mark. Alvarez curled a free-kick from the left into the box and Glazer came out to punch but failed to make clean contact and the ball flew in after skimming the back of his hand.
Haaland went close again when he headed against a post before Alvarez lashed just wide. City finally gave the scoreline a more realistic look when Rodri claimed their third.
The Spaniard turned Vladimir Lucic outside the area after good work by Foden and strode forward to pass the ball into the far bottom corner. The champions are up and running.
Analysis: No panic from relentless Man City
Sky Sports News’ Vinny O’Connor, reporting at the Etihad, said: “Routine in the end for City. The only surprise was that Haaland didn’t score especially given the chances he had. That said, he’s still hit 35 in 31 career Champions League appearances while the European champions are off to a winning start in the defence of their title.”
Paul Merson added: “Even though he threw in the second one, the Red Star goalkeeper just had one of those days. In the first half and second half, he kept them in the game. He was outstanding and made some vital saves.
“Man City are the only team I watch where the opposition play 10 behind the ball and they still seem to have so much space. It’s phenomenal as with other teams it’s hard to break that down but City still do it with so much ease.
“They grind teams down, they don’t panic and they keep on playing until they eventually win. It was a comfortable win and Alvarez scored a phenomenal equaliser. Haaland could have had a hat-trick.”
Player of the match – Julian Alvarez
Julian Alvarez has scored three goals in his last two UEFA Champions League appearances for Manchester City – more than in his first nine games in the competition (two goals).
“He deserves it,” added Guardiola when asked if the in-form forward is currently the first name on his team sheet. “Every single game he’s working, scoring goals and making things happen. He deserves it.”
City’s class eventually tells – Opta stats
- Manchester City are unbeaten in their last 27 home games in the UEFA Champions League (W25 D2) since a 1-2 defeat to Lyon in September 2018. It is the third ever longest such run in the competition, after Barcelona between September 2013 and November 2020 (38 games) and FC Bayern München between March 1998 and April 2002 (29 games).
- Red Star Belgrade have lost each of their last five UEFA Champions League matches, by an aggregate scoreline of 19-1. The Serbian side’s last win in the competition came via a 3-1 victory over Olympiakos in October 2019.
- Manchester City had 37 shots in this match – the most by a team in a UEFA Champions League game since Real Madrid v Roma in March 2016 (also 37).
- Manchester City midfielder Rodri has scored in his last two appearances in the UEFA Champions League (two goals), after netting just one goal across his first 47 games in the competition (v FC Bayern München in April 2023).
Manchester City will look to maintain their 100 per cent start in the Premier League on Saturday at home to Nottingham Forest. Kick-off 3pm. Their next Champions League Group G fixture is at RB Leipzig on Wednesday October 4 at 8pm.
Red Star Belgrade visit Partizan in the Serbian SuperLiga on Wednesday September 27, kick-off 6pm (BST). They will host Young Boys in the Champions League on October 4 at 8pm.