While Manchester City’s players clambered over one another in a sweaty, messy mash of bodies in front of the away dugout at Signal Iduna Park, something rather symbolic was happening right in the middle of the mosh pit.
There, the most talented coach of his generation and the cornerstone of Abu Dhabi’s lavishly funded project was locked in an embrace with a kid first spotted at Bridge Hall Primary in Edgeley some 15 years ago, before the takeover.
For if Pep Guardiola’s presence on the touchline best represents the modern-day City and illustrates how much the club has changed, Phil Foden‘s emergence provides a link with its rather more parochial past, as well as promise of a successful future.
“He found me, he ran everywhere to the bench and found me,” Guardiola said of Foden after the final whistle. “I think this hug is for all the club, all the people working so hard here so far this season, to achieve what we achieved so far.”
Maybe Pep, but it looked slightly more personal than that, especially when Guardiola was passionately whispering something into Foden’s ear, ignoring the other players crashing down on top of them.
Guardiola could not recall – or perhaps did not want to share – the precise words. “Well done, good shot, good goal, thank you. I don’t know what I say in the moment.”
‘Thank you’ was definitely appropriate. If any one City player won this Champions League quarter final tie against Borussia Dortmund, taking Guardiola further than he has previously been in this competition since arriving in Manchester and ending his last eight curse, it was Foden.
Last week, he drove City forwards during the late stages of last week’s first leg, forcing them to overcome Marco Reus’ equaliser, and eventually scoring the 90th-minute winner to carry a 2-1 lead into this second leg.
Then in Dortmund, at a time when City’s opponents still had a viable route back into the tie, a low, clean drive with his left foot bounced in off the post to all but secure passage into the last four.
Foden is no longer a new face. It is going on five years since his first appearance in a City match day squad. This is his fourth season as a first team squad member. He has, for example, been around the block much longer than Jude Bellingham, the other young English talent to make a lasting impression over these two legs.
And yet, like his stunning goal at Anfield in February, Foden’s influence over this quarter-final tie felt like a declaration of his talent to the world, in a season where he has gone from an exciting young prodigy to a first-choice, first team player. He was everywhere across both of these games.
In the first leg, he not only dragged City forward late on but had a telling influence in the move which resulted in Kevin De Bruyne’s first-half breakthrough. A week later, it was his cross that Emre Can handled to concede the crucial penalty, which was converted by Riyad Mahrez to restore City’s slender advantage on aggregate.
What is most impressive from a 20-year-old is the sense of responsibility, his courage to get on the ball and run with it or make ambitious plays without fear of failure. Out of possession, his tireless work rate is combined with a deceptive strength.
Ansgar Knauff was one of the unfortunate Dortmund players to be bundled off the ball by Foden with ease, which immediately sprung a City counter-attack.
“You have the feeling that he is a guy who never hides,” Guardiola would later say. “He always creates something. He is dynamic offensively, defensively with quality in the smaller spaces. He is learning right now not to take just one touch, he is able to make more touches when making decisions.
“He scored two important goals, the second goal in the Etihad and today helped us to be in the semi-final. We knew it from the beginning. He grew up. In the quarter-final of the Champions League, he was the important player to go through to play against PSG.”
By scoring in both legs, Foden became the second player under the age of 21 to achieve that feat in the Champions League quarter finals or beyond. The other is Kylian Mbappe, who awaits in the semi-finals.
A tweet from Foden’s official account tagging Mbappe with the message “are you ready” and a handshake emoji cropped up shortly after City’s win in Dortmund, only to be swiftly deleted. It was posted by a social media company managing Foden’s account rather than the player himself and was taken down as it jarred with his measured, modest personality.
Even so, you would be surprised if Mbappe took any offence. This was no arrogant and cheeky upstart after all, but a young player whose gradual, carefully managed development has led him to a point where he can inspire a side of more senior players and be the deciding influence in taking them to the Champions League semi-finals.
If anything, it feels as though Foden has fully arrived and, having announced his abilities to the world, he is ready to share the stage with anyone.