Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Jack Grealish and the Champions League is already a winning match

In the end, the night was everything that Jack Grealish had dreamed of and more. “I loved it,” he said after a Champions League debut that involved a goal, an assist and a star turn.

Winning this competition is once again the primary objective for last season’s beaten finalists.

This 6-3 demolition of RB Leipzig demonstrated why Manchester City’s latest attempt at continental domination might finally end in success, and some familiar frailties when defending against counter-attacks also showed why it might not.

Up until last night, though, their record £100m signing had a much more modest ambition. Winning the Champions League could wait. First, Grealish simply wanted to play in it.

“As soon as the game kicked off, I just thought in my head: ‘I’ve actually played in the Champions League now’.”

At that moment, even though only a second or two had passed, even though he was yet to do anything of note, Grealish knew he could call himself a Champions League player and nobody could say otherwise.

“I’ve been waiting a while,” he added, “and over the past few days and weeks I just couldn’t wait for this game in particular.”

There is a boyish charm and a rare authenticity in the way Grealish talks about the game. Dean Smith’s description of him as a “football encyclopaedia” was not far off, even if that description was infamously lost on Grealish himself.

It may be a relatively well-known piece of trivia that Trevor Francis was English football’s first £1m footballer, but how many players would reference that in interviews about their own record fee, particularly those who were born 16 years or more later?

As a kid, he would go out of his way to find and watch compilation reels of his favourite players, to analyse their movement and manipulation of the ball, and to dissect how they would break down a defence. He still regularly does, especially before games.

Then last season, while still an Aston Villa player, Tuesday and Wednesday nights sat in front of the TV watching the leading talents at Europe’s leading clubs only reinforced his desire to one day play in this competition.

That day finally arrived at the Etihad on Wednesday evening and Grealish was the best player on the pitch, in a performance that felt like his true City arrival.

His goal – City’s fourth on the night and the pick of the nine scored – saw him taking the ball up in space out on the left, driving inside on his right then arcing a finish into the far corner.

“When I’m in that position off the left side, running into the opposition area, I back myself against anyone to have a go,” he said. That was just the crowning moment, though.

Grealish’s evening began with a delicate through ball for Ferran Torres, played on the turn, which dismantled Leipzig’s defensive line. The assist followed shortly after, as his high, looping and inswinging corner dropped in precisely the right position for Nathan Ake to capitalise on more Leipzig panic and power in.

There were times throughout the evening where his close control, direct running and intricate link-up play pulled the Bundesliga visitors apart.

Looking for a word to describe Grealish, Leipzig head coach Jesse Marsch landed on “shifty”. What he meant was that Grealish had bewildered him just as much as his players. “We didn’t deal with him well on the fourth… the fifth goal?”, he chuckled. “I don’t know.”

Pep Guardiola meanwhile believes that, after Grealish’s first Champions League goal, there is more to come. “Hopefully it can be the first of many. I have the feeling every day he is playing better and I’m sure he will be better in the future. His contribution was high. I am delighted with his game.”

In a fortnight’s time, City travel to play Paris Saint-Germain and Lionel Messi in Paris. Neymar is one of Grealish’s favourite players, too, having watched videos of him even since his early days at Santos.

It is the type of occasion that City’s £100m signing has waited a long time for, one he will delight in, on a stage where his talents do not look out of place.
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