Guardiola says Man City have to prove themselves again after early UCL scare
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Manchester City fans were in shock. Crvena Zvezda's Osman Bukari had just burst through on goal to fire the visitors into an unlikely halftime lead at Etihad Stadium.
Here was an early reminder of just how difficult it will be for Pep Guardiola's team to retain the Champions League title it won for the first time last season.
Normal service was resumed by the end of Tuesday's Group G game, with City completing a second-half comeback to win 3-1. Bukari's strike, however, was evidence of the dangers that may lie ahead.
"After winning the treble, we need to be the type of champions who prove (to) ourselves that we are able to make a comeback," Pep Guardiola said afterward. "We have things to improve in general, but that's really, really good."
Julian Alvarez scored twice to ensure City got its Champions League title defense off to a winning start.
Rodri, whose goal against Inter Milan in last season's final saw City crowned European champions, added a third later on.
Guardiola's team had dominated the first half without finding a way past Belgrade goalkeeper Omri Glazer, while Bukari seized a rare chance at the other end.
"We weren't clinical enough," Rodri said. "They scored with the first chance and the same thing happened against West Ham (on Saturday). The most important thing is at halftime talking to the guys and saying, 'Don’t panic, let's keep doing our job.'"
City is aiming to become only the second club to successfully retain the trophy in the Champions League era. Real Madrid is the only team to win back-to-back titles having completed a three-peat from 2016-18.
City is expected to go deep into the competition again this season after reaching two finals in the last three seasons. But Guardiola underlined the difficulty in defending the title on the eve of the match when reminding his players that "this competition doesn't allow you mistakes."
Bukari's strike proved his point for him when coming against the run of play.
City had piled the pressure on Belgrade by forcing Glazer into a number of saves and also hitting the woodwork.
Rodri, Alvarez, Nathan Ake and Phil Foden were all denied as the home side repeatedly cut through Belgrade's defense, while Erling Haaland's header come back off the bar.
It felt like a matter of time before the deadlock was broken, but the opening goal came from an unexpected source.
As Belgrade's main outlet on the break, Bukari had failed to trouble City's defense until bursting through on goal in the 45th. With Ederson to beat, he was clinical as he swept a shot past the Brazilian 'keeper to spark wild celebrations from the visiting supporters.
Those cheers were cut short when the offside flag was raised, but there was a second eruption when VAR overruled the on-field decision.
City had not lost at home in the Champions League since 2018 and was on the back of a 26-game unbeaten run at Etihad Stadium in the competition — a record for an English team.
That record has now been extended to 27 games as City found its cutting edge after the break, with Alvarez leveling two minutes after half time.
The forward combined with Haaland in the box and then showed quick feet as he took the ball around Glazer and finished from a narrow angle.
He fired City in front on the hour when his free kick was allowed to curl all the way into the top corner after Glazer failed to connect with an attempted punched clearance.
"He has everything," Guardiola said of the Argentina international. "Fighting, goals and assists. He is an incredibly lovely guy. Playing behind Erling, he is an incredible threat."
Rodri added a third in the 73rd after carrying the ball into the box and curling a low shot into the bottom corner.
A concern for City was an unspecified injury to Bernardo Silva in the first half that Guardiola said would keep him out for the "next games."
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer
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