Photography: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
Just before the hour of this match at the Etihad Stadium, Bernardo Silva took the ball on the right wing and started driving towards the inside, not so much sprinting as walking with urgency, like a man running a little late to give a lecture, the scarf fluttering absentmindedly over one shoulder.
Coincidentally, more just to hang on to the ball, he beat Alphonso Davies. Then he did the impossible, somehow seeming to cross Davies’ legs in pursuit of the ball, reappearing on his man’s other side through an invisible hobbit tunnel.
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As an afterthought, he also freaked Matthijs de Ligt, then looked up to find Davies stalking him, forcing him to stop, spin and haul the ball back, creating snow angel patterns in the grass before finally being slammed to the ground.
Ten minutes later Silva was in the same space, choosing this time to draw another character from his complete interpretation of the one man cast. This time judging the delicate flight of Erling Haaland’s cross and charging like a 1950s anvil-headed goal prop to strike a powerful header past Yann Sommer and into the net to make it 2-0 in the first leg of this quarter-final, confirming two things.
First, that City is just too good, too set up, too grooved right now to fall for the off chance of a little Thomas Tuchel voodoo. And secondly, that Silva is one of the most extraordinary players in modern elite football. Haaland will grab the headlines, the difference maker who made one and scored one. But Silva was absolutely masterful here, starting the match in the bespoke right-wing superpresser Guardiola has reserved for him at City’s current version.
Silva was there because Bayern’s right flank is a real spearhead, and nobody else holds the ball or reads space better out there. And from the outset the duel between Silva and Davies was utterly riveting, a collision between Silva’s superbrain drawling presence and Davies’ elite grace and athleticism.
Silva is truly an extraordinary player in this role. Here’s a footballer with the full 360-degree picture in his head, seeing the future, glimpsing the patterns, pass after pass, and using that super strength when his opponents have the ball to cut corners, to choke, to seal the channels of the attacking space. In the way other players pass, shoot or dribble, Silva has become an absolute master of pressing.
The Etihad Stadium tends to get dark on nights like these, a dark, spiraling, insidiously hostile place. At kick-off the Manchester skies continued to dump vast and annihilating showers of rain; rain that appears to fall in clumps, at some point falling from both above and below.
Bayern started well enough, using their speed to attack City’s left flank. But City have consistently asserted their pace and Silva has begun to dominate that space on the right. Silva’s strength has always been his total comfort on the ball. He just doesn’t care, he doesn’t feel it, he sees every space and movement at triple speed, so confident in his ability to shift his feet and sneak through the smallest of gaps.
There was almost something comical about watching Bayern, an athletic team so powerful being pressed, harassed and rebuffed by this R2-D2 of an ambiguous, thin-legged footballer.
The first goal came from that side. First Silva jumped out with the ball, he jumped further, dragging two defenders with him. The ball on the inside was simple enough, rolled with a sense of well – yes – of course, and perfectly weighted to help guide Rodri away from Jamal Musiala. Suddenly Rodri has space on his left foot and a line in the top corner. Seeing it is one thing. The execution was perfect, the ball being shot in a beautiful arc off the post line and into the top corner of the net as Jann Sommer grabbed on to the void.
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It was fitting that Silva scored the second, another page in his complete guide to elite football. Haaland landed the third, set up by a nice touch from John Stones, who was transformed here into a fluid midfield-centre-back role, a change from his previous shift into the fluid midfield-full-back role.
Bayern were messy and fragile at times. There seemed to be a determination to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Sommer is not very good at close-range, high-velocity rondo ball control. Conversely, City are now such a well seasoned entity, able to stifle and control the game where the opposition are strong, and to do so using a player who arrived here as a mutable number 10 and who is now one of the great pressurers of world football.
What are tackles? It appears the tackles are an eight-stone gimmick dominating a 40-yard area of the field by being impossible to expropriate and making 400 perfect high-speed decisions over the course of 90 minutes. There could still be a showdown for this City side. But not here and not against this underpowered version of Bayern.