Published: 15:26, February 24, 2023 | Updated: 15:26, February 24, 2023
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Gvardiol thwarts Guardiola's men
By Agencies

Manchester City's Norwegian striker Erling Haaland (right) and Leipzig's Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol vie for the ball during the UEFA Champions League round of 16, first-leg football match between RB Leipzig and Manchester City in Leipzig, eastern Germany on Feb 22, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

LEIPZIG, Germany — Josko Gvardiol stifled the threat of Manchester City star Erling Haaland before scoring himself to earn RB Leipzig a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their last-16 matchup in the Champions League on Wednesday.

The Croatia centerback, nicknamed "Little Pep" because of the similarities of his last name with that of City manager Pep Guardiola, headed home the equalizer in the 70th minute after Leipzig finally got to grips with the English champion.

City dominated the first half without Haaland, its top scorer, getting a sight on goal and Riyad Mahrez netted the 27th-minute opener after Ilkay Gundogan flicked through a pass from Jack Grealish.

As Haaland grew frustrated in the second half, City lost control of the game and Leipzig posed more of a threat, creating the best chances.

"What do you expect, that we are playing a friendly game here?" Guardiola said, when asked why his team was unable to retain its domination into the second half. "How many games have you seen from Leipzig? You expect us to come here and win 0-5? That is not a reality."

We started to play, to fight ... Really different to the first half. We were too passive in every situation. We had no power. In the second half, we were the same level (as City). Better late than never.

Marco Rose, Leipzig coach 

It leaves the match in the balance heading into the second leg in Manchester on March 14 as City continues its bid for a first Champions League title.

Guardiola conducted a mini debrief with his players on the field after the final whistle, telling them to stay positive after seeing them throw away their advantage after a first-half performance that could have led to more than just Mahrez's 20th Champions League goal.

Haaland had only seven touches before halftime — none of them coming in Leipzig's penalty area — and he had only one opportunity in the whole match, when he got free down the right midway through the second half and snatched at a shot that dribbled wide.

ALSO READ: Gvardiol header earns Leipzig 1-1 draw against Man City

Leipzig's extra intensity and aggression paid off as the German team, a Champions League semifinalist in 2020, finally showed why it had lost just one of its 20 previous matches in all competitions.

"We started to play, to fight," Leipzig coach Marco Rose said. "Really different to the first half. We were too passive in every situation. We had no power. In the second half, we were the same level (as City). Better late than never."

As Manchester City star Erling Haaland grew frustrated in the second half, City lost control of the game and Leipzig posed more of a threat, creating the best chances

Benjamin Henrichs, who came on as a halftime substitute, side-footed wide when he was one on one with goalkeeper Ederson, who got down well to deny Andre Silva.

However, Ederson was left stranded when Marcel Halstenberg swung over a left-wing cross and 21-year-old Gvardiol — one of the best defenders at last year's World Cup and among Europe's most sought-after young players — got above Ruben Dias to nod the ball into an unguarded net.

There was a bizarre incident in the final seconds when Mahrez curled a cross into the area and a header from City midfielder Rodri appeared to be punched away by Henrichs as he defended his body with both arms. City's players appealed for a penalty but the referee was unmoved.

Leipzig's Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol (third left) gets up to score the 1-1 goal with his head during the UEFA Champions League round of 16, first-leg football match between RB Leipzig and Manchester City in Leipzig, eastern Germany on Feb 22, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

When Leipzig last visited City's Etihad Stadium, it was routed 6-3 in a wild group-stage game in the Champions League last season. Christopher Nkunku scored a hattrick for Leipzig that night and the France striker came on as a substitute in the second half, stepping up his sharpness after a left knee injury sustained in training in November just before flying out to the World Cup.

Nkunku might be fit to start the second leg when City should have Kevin De Bruyne available again. The playmaker was absent on Wednesday because of an illness.

There was a bizarre incident in the final seconds when Riyad Mahrez curled a cross into the area and a header from City midfielder Rodri appeared to be punched away by Benjamin Henrichs as he defended his body with both arms. City's players appealed for a penalty but the referee was unmoved

Gvardiol 'will stay'

Rose said sought-after centerback Gvardiol "is our player and will stay our player".

In his second season in Leipzig since moving from Dynamo Zagreb, Gvardiol's form for Leipzig, as well as his performances at the World Cup for Croatia, has reportedly made him a target of several European clubs.

Gvardiol was recently quoted in the German media saying: "I might be out the door after Christopher (Nkunku)," in reference to the French striker's reported deal with Chelsea.

READ MORE: Ederson: Champions League success is Man City's main goal

Rose, however, shot down speculation the defender could be off to England, saying "the headlines don't seem to be bothering him".

"He's an RB Leipzig player, I think he will stay a player for RB Leipzig. In the story, he said that about Christopher, but he laughed — of course, in the newspaper, you don't see the laugh. He said he likes it here and he feels comfortable here. As a trainer you want to work with the best players."