It started with a typical rush of goals. It ended with some last-ditch clearances and the rare feeling of relief at the final whistle.
After swatting aside allcomers this season, Manchester City finally was given its first real test in the shape of Italian league leader Napoli and emerged with a 2-1 win in the Champions League on Tuesday.
It is 10 straight wins for City in all competitions. None has been so hard-earned.
“We have faced one of the best teams of my career, probably the best,” City manager Pep Guardiola, insisting he wasn’t just handing out cheap praise. “That’s why it’s one of the wins I am most proud in my career.”
A matchup between the leading and highest-scoring teams in England and Italy lived up to its billing, a breathless encounter swaying from early City dominance to a comeback from Napoli that would have yielded a draw had the visitors converted both of their penalties.
Goals by Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus put City 2-0 ahead by the 13th minute. Three days after a masterful 7-2 win over Stoke in the Premier League, City looked like racking up another big win — this time against one of the form teams in Europe.
Sterling side-footed home left-footed in the eighth minute after Kyle Walker’s goal-bound shot, off a cross by David Silva, was blocked. It was his eighth goal in 11 matches this season, a record that was soon matched by Jesus when the striker tapped in from De Bruyne’s cross.
De Bruyne, City’s star player this season from central midfield, struck the crossbar from long range and Jesus had a shot cleared off the line. Napoli was holding on and a team lacking two of its star midfielders — Allan and Jorginho were rested in view of a big Serie A game against Inter Milan at the weekend — was being outclassed.
By the half-hour mark, though, Napoli had worked out how to beat City’s press and finally started to pose the English team some problems. Guardiola’s side met its match and needed plenty of grit and hard work to preserve its lead.
“We have to divide the match into two parts, the first 25 minutes and the rest,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said.
“We had some difficulties against a team that is causing difficulties against any team. But we managed to come back, and not many teams have been able to do that.”
When Walker pulled back Raul Albiol as they challenged to get to a cross, Napoli was awarded its first penalty of the evening but City goalkeeper Ederson Moraes guessed the right way to parry out Dries Mertens’ effort.
Napoli continued to push City back in the second half with its so-called “Sarri-ball” and didn’t waste a second chance from the spot in the 73rd, after Fernandinho tripped Faouzi Ghoulam. Amadou Diawara took over penalty duties and beat Ederson, who again guessed the correct side.
City looked dangerous on the counterattack but Napoli finished the stronger, Mertens squirting a shot wide after being played through and Marek Hamsik seizing on a misplaced pass but being smothered out by the diving John Stones.
While City celebrated a third straight win in Group F, Napoli could struggle to advance in the Champions League having lost two of its first three games. Sarri’s team is third, three points behind second-placed Shakhtar Donetsk, and could be on the brink with a loss to City in the return match on Nov. 1.