It was inevitable that Manchester City would overcome the dramatic strike on the stroke of half time that gave Crvena zvezda and precisely no one else belief that they could achieve something remarkable at the Etihad Stadium. This is the group stage of the Champions League. Considering the drama that tends to stalk Pep Guardiola once the spring begins, he has long since mastered the tedious progress to the last 16.
This 3-1 victory will exit the collective memory of European football almost as swiftly as it entered it, and that might just suit Julian Alvarez to a tee. Without anyone particularly commenting on it, the 23-year-old has found his sweet spot in City colors over the last season and change. It sits firmly in the shadow of Erling Haaland. That is no bad thing. Alvarez has the World Cup winners’ medal that Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Hernan Crespo lack because he understood, better than any of them, that his job must be, first and foremost, to facilitate the excellence of Lionel Messi.
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Alvarez insists on doing the same for Haaland. Even with a first hat trick in European football on the cards, his first inclination was to lay yet another chance on for the senior striker. Clearing the desperate lunge of Nasser Djiga with a flick of his right boot, he found the angle opening up invitingly for a sweep towards the far corner, the sort of finish you see him convert more often than not in City’ pre-match shooting drills. Crashing into the box over his right shoulder, however, was Haaland. Alvarez demured, his fizzed cross a little too high for the goal machine to deliver its optimal output.
Even as he delivered the two goals that secured a sixth straight win to start the season for the reigning champions of all they survey, Alvarez’s first instinct was always to create for others. He alone ended the game having created more chances than the entire Newcastle team managed in Milan earlier on Tuesday. He beat their shot tally too, a pair of them turning the game around early in the second half.
The first was the proto big-man, little-man goal, a joyous throwback to the days of Shaun Goater and Paul Dickov (look ’em up kids). Haaland served as the target for Alvarez to give and go, the Argentine spinning into the No.10 position, haring beyond it and getting to his strike partner’s through ball just in time to poke it away from Omri Glazer. What little angle there was looked to be closing rapidly, but before he could even set himself from his first touch he took a second, rolling the ball into the net with his right before the path to goal deserted him. A second to look up and the chance would have gone.
Alvarez had altogether more time to plot out his second, a wickedly bending free kick from the left channel that Glazer woefully misjudged. UEFA concluded that it had been swinging into the far top corner before the Israel goalkeeper got a nick on it, a decision that looked rather sketchy on replay, but felt like a fair outcome. Alvarez’s excellence merited at least a brace. Glazer had too many great moments for his box score to be overshadowed by the inevitable goal that broke the Red Star resistance.
With that brace, the Argentine finds himself on four goals and three assists through eight games this season. The latter is already an improvement on his tally from year one at City, the Kevin De Bruyne role that he has been thrust into not daunting Alvarez in the slightest. He may not yet be on the level of the Belgian, but Alvarez is showing qualities that one would associate with the greatest creator of his generation– an innate understanding of space, a swiftly formed understanding of where Haaland will be that verges on the telepathic, gaudy output in terms of chances created and expected assists.
For the most part it has fallen under the radar, though not with Guardiola, who pointedly labelled Alvarez “almost undroppable” after his display in the win over West Ham on Saturday. “Every single game he is working, scoring goals, making assists, he deserves [to be one of the first names on the team sheet],” his manager added today.
The season after the season had begun with the lingering question of who, as De Bruyne’s body began to fail him, might be able to take on the role of Haaland’s partner in crime, the lead creator who could deliver goals in abundance. Scarcely a year after he arrived in England that question seems to have been addressed. Alvarez has long been City’s future. He would appear to be their present too.