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Five Things Learned: Copenhagen 1-3 Manchester City (UEFA Champions League Last-16 First-Leg)

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A dazzling Phil Foden performance allowed Manchester City to leave Denmark with a two-goal cushion, as the defending European champions started the knock-out stage.

Manchester City controlled the match from the start, and jumped out to an early lead when Kevin De Bruyne calmly rifled in a shot from a tight angle. The goal was set-up by Foden, who played a ball in-behind Copenhagen’s defence.

Just 20 minutes into the first-half, Jack Grealish was then forced off due to a muscular injury. The former Aston Villa captain understandably looked distraught after taking on his first start since early January, and despite attempting to come back on, was replaced by Jeremy Doku. 

Despite the change in play style as a result of the enforced substitution, City maintained control, but an unnecessary error from Ederson gifted the hosts an equalising goal in the 34th minute. The Brazilian tried to pick out a pass to the left, but kicked it directly to one of Copenhagen’s forwards, eventually landing at the feet of debutant Magnus Mattsson who took his chance first time and curled in an excellent goal.

It was yet another goal conceded by Manchester City from the first shot on target, and yet another entirely avoidable situation. However, it would be Copenhagen’s only shot on target for the entirety of the match.

City were able to retake the lead in the closing moments of the first half when Bernardo Silva chipped home over the onrushing Kamil Grabara. It was a fortunate strike setup by a Kevin De Bruyne tackle that forced the ball directly behind Copenhagen’s defence.

Bernardo Silva was forced off on 78 minutes when a Copenhagen defender launched a reckless tackle into the Portuguese midfielder’s ankle, leaving the playmaker hobbling and was ultimately subbed off for Matheus Nunes.

While Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne had a few opportunities to grab a third goal, it was not until the 92nd minute when Phil Foden was finally able to get his chance. De Bruyne played a cut back that took a slight deflection into the path of Foden, who calmly finished near-post to give Manchester City a two-goal cushion ahead of next month’s second-leg.

Here are the five things we learned from Manchester City’s crucial win in Copenhagen!

We got to see Pep’s preferred line-up… briefly

Injuries, suspensions, and a FIFA Club World Cup trip to the Middle-East have somewhat derailed Pep Guardiola’s ability to field a fully-fit squad this season. However, European away legs have become the place where the boss only plays his most trusted players.

Jack Grealish coming off early, and eventually Bernardo Silva as well, means it could be a while before we see the go-to line-up in action again.

However, there are still a few weeks between now and matches against the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. As long as there are not any more fitness issues later down the line this season, one can expect to see this line-up often. 

Phil Foden is showing signs that he has learned ‘pausa’

While Phil Foden has not fully mastered it in the way Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, or David Silva have done, there is no doubt that the Englishman has showed an impressive amount of growth in the past few months in regards to controlling the tempo of games. 

Time and time again throughout his career, Pep Guardiola has pushed Foden to slow down at times and not always look to push and run. Kevin De Bruyne’s injury forced Guardiola to play the 23-year-old centrally, and after two costly mistakes against Crystal Palace in December, Phil Foden has barely put a foot wrong since en route to 25 goal contributions in 36 appearances.

The push for ‘Player of the Season’ continues…

This is the best Kyle Walker has looked all season

It has not been a good season for Kyle Walker, both on and off the pitch.

However, the 33-year-old seems to have put his poor performances behind him. The return of Kevin De Bruyne has likely helped, regardless of not having to make overlapping runs down the right. But Walker has also been solid and mostly error-free on the defensive end as well.

It was at this point last that Kyle Walker started to lose his spot to Manuel Akanji, Rico Lewis, and John Stones at full-back, and it nearly caused him to leave the club in the summer. If he continues to play like this for the remainder of the season, it is hard to see him getting dropped.

Kevin De Bruyne’s magic return continues

The Belgian has arguably been playing the best football of his career since returning from his hamstring injury last month. Kevin De Bruyne now has two goals and six assists (seven if you count the one for Phil Foden’s goal on Tuesday night), and is averaging a goal contribution every 40 minutes since returning.

There will obviously be a drop off in production at some point, but De Bruyne has shed any doubt about his ability to come back from a serious injury. He looks refreshed and honestly more athletic on the ball than he has in years. His good form has come at the perfect time for what will likely be another title run in.

John Stones’ health might decide the season

While Kevin De Bruyne is far and away the best player in the team, and his injuries over the past few seasons have caused headaches, Manchester City still found ways often to win titles without him.

The same cannot be said for John Stones. Ever since his resurgence three years ago, the versatile central defender has been vital both in build-up and in defence. His calming presence has allowed Manchester City to, at times, have the best defence in Europe. Other than Rodri there is no other player in the squad who may be more valuable.

John Stones has missed significant amount of time on three occasions so far this season. Injuries have always plagued him throughout his career, but he has found a way to mostly be injury free during the business end of the season the past few years.

If that trend continues, it is safe to assume that Manchester City will be able to push for the treble again. However, if his fitness issues are not sorted by the spring, that task starts to look more and more impossible.

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