Manchester City were as disjointed as they have been this season yet still emerged with a draw that secures qualification from Champions League Group G after Sevilla failed to beat Borussia Dortmund.
On a night when an exhausted Erling Haaland was rested, after starting all the previous 12 games, Pep Guardiola’s men did a rare thing: failed to score, though this and their lack of fluidity could be traced to Sergio Gómez’s first-half sending-off following a VAR review in a 45 minutes dominated – and, perhaps, blighted – by the out-of-stadium official.
City also missed a penalty – Riyad Mahrez the culprit – but finished pleased with eking out a point that barring Sevilla, bottom of the standings, winning their last three matches, including by a high margin at the Etihad Stadium, means they motor to Liverpool on Sunday in relaxed mood. Guardiola professed himself content. “I’m really satisfied,” the manager said. “The team gave everything [especially with] 10-v-11.”
Copenhagen were defiant throughout, as signalled by an early Hakon Arnar Haraldsson corner which was headed away by Kevin De Bruyne. City’s first real foray featured Julián Álvarez’s angled shot being tipped behind by Kamil Grabara, though no corner was awarded. This delighted the Parken Stadium faithful as much as what occurred when Rodri rifled a superb volley beyond their goalkeeper.
For a first time Artur Dias, the referee, was ordered to the monitor by the VAR and he crossed out the strike owing to a Mahrez handball before Álvarez’s lay-off – the latter in the XI thanks to Guardiola giving the man-of-the-season (so far) a break.
Despite being dismantled by the same opponents 5-0 last week Lukas Lerager further signalled the feistiness of Jacob Neestrup’s men, the midfielder’s 20-yard effort requiring a Ederson hand to deflect it out.
When Haraldsson flighted in the corner City’s defenders ball-watched and the Brazilian again had to save his team. His opposite number, Grabara, did the same when Nicolai Boilesen was adjudged to have handled – again by Dias, again via the touchline TV – from a Mahrez corner and the referee pointed to the spot. The Algerian’s effort was to the goalkeeper’s right but he flung himself in that direction to save superbly.
VAR and the pitchside monitor’s busy outing now had its third moment when Dias was told to review Gómez’s challenge on Haraldsson. The Spaniard was last man and when the referee finally saw replays of the incident – he had allowed play to continue for some seconds – a free-kick was given and the red card raised over the left-back who ambled off with no complaint.
Cue Guardiola sacrificing Mahrez in a defensive rejig that had Rúben Dias coming on to operate in a three-man rearguard, as Manuel Akanji went to right wing-back and João Cancelo to the same role on the left. This was all ragged by the perfectionist standards of City, whose manager will have been concerned but, then, heartened regarding how they rallied to end the period on top, despite only having 10 players.
For the second half Guardiola resisted introducing Haaland and, later, revealed why. “He finished the game against Southampton [at the weekend] so tired and didn’t recover well,” the Catalan said. “Monday [he] was not good, today a little better but not perfect so we decided not to take the risk.”
The noise inside the venue remained vibrant and raucous, the home fans raising the volume when two corners were claimed as City were pinned back. Guardiola’s side ooze quality, of course, so there was no surprise to see Cancelo, Álvarez and De Bruyne skate upfield and engineer an opening for the peerless Belgian to test Grabara with a cutely curled attempt from range.
“Spirited” was an apt characterisation of each team. Duramy, along Copenhagen’s left, looked to get at Dias when he could, embodying his side’s approach as, too, did Jack Grealish whose bursts of pace moved City the other way – the winger, in one moment, creating a chance for De Bruyne who blazed into the side-netting.
The visitors’ instinct to rove forward had them still threatening Grabara’s goal as the seconds ticked on, Álvarez rising near the right post to steer a free header off target, while Marko Stamenic’s late 20-yard shot, though wide, was illustrative of how Copenhagen fought all night.
Before kick-off their fans had sung a ditty to the tune of the Boomtown Rats’ song I Don’t Like Mondays. By the end City were quite partial to this Tuesday as this was job virtually done in a streetwise offering that showed how shrewd England’s champions now are in the elite continental competition. There will be far tougher challenges but, at the end of the match, they walked off content and so move on to facing Jürgen Klopp’s men which Guardiola at the weekend described as always being City’s litmus test.