Manchester City staged a remarkable turnaround in Bavaria, not only coming from behind to beat Bayern Munich but producing a performance of great assurance against a Bayern team that began like aristocrats but faded terribly as City took the points to finish second on goal difference in Group D.
James Milner made two and scored one in the home of the European champions in a final hour that saw a weakened City team come from 2-0 down to win deservedly 3-2. It is a result and a performance that will give Manuel Pellegrini great confidence for the knockout stages.
The Allianz Arena was its usual boisterous midweek self on a chilly Bavarian night, with City's travelling minority – no doubt still warmed by the mass tactical Glühwein ingestion staged from mid-morning in Munich's Marienplatz – crammed into the top tier of another full house. Cast before kick-off as at best a half-dead rubber, this was a match in which City needed to reverse the 3-1 deficit from the Etihad to top Group D. A good start seemed essential.
Instead City dished up a terrible one, giving the ball away to Franck Ribéry from the kick-off and allowing Bayern to open the scoring after six minutes with a horribly simple goal. Dante's lofted pass found Thomas Müller all alone, his chest control took him away from Aleksandar Kolarov and the finish was rolled past Joe Hart. Müller styles himself as Der Ramdeuter, or "the space interpreter" and City's early marking suggested he was in for a gruellingly thorough night's investigations. Five minutes later Ribéry hit the post from an acute angle and from the corner that followed, Mario Mandzukic was left in so much space he had time to control, turn and side-foot past Hart.
At this stage it looked as though the final scoreline would depend on how far Bayern were willing to press the point, making a mockery of Pep Guardiola's fears in the build-up that his players would treat this match as a Freundschafts-speil-charakter (the excellent German term for "friendly") with the group all but won.
It is a measure of Bayern's state of almost embarrassing good health that guarding against complacency is as much Guardiola's brief as fine-tuning his team. On Sunday Bayern had held their annual Christmas Party at the swanky Teatro restaurant – complete with "top musicians" and 200 very special guests – and celebrated what Karl-Heinz Rummenigge called "a year of superlatives". Next week they travel to the Club World Cup in Morocco before resuming in the Bundesliga on 25 January. Little wonder training was said to have something end-of-term-ish about it this week.
There was even something startling about Bayern's line-up here: essentially a back four with Mario Mandzukic up front and in between whatever the collective term is for an excess of attacking midfielders (a feast? a debauchery?), with Thiago Alcântara and Toni Kroos filling the more defensive roles.
And yet nothing should take away from City's efforts here. Pellegrini's men regrouped as Javi García and Fernandinho began to get a decisive grip on that revolving midfield. City's manager had also made tactical changes, playing Edin Dzeko as a lone striker in front of a five-man midfield with Milner and Jesús Navas on the flanks – it was City's width that increasingly stretched Bayern – and with Micah Richards and Hart also included. One can tell it is a weakened team at City when the Englishmen get a game.
For Hart this was an important night. If he was never likely to keep a clean sheet he came through without making any obvious errors, handled the ball well and played a part in a famous result, possibly even the greatest in City's European history, despite the result having no effect on the final group standings.
As the half wore on City's possession was rewarded. First Milner drew a save from Manuel Neuer with a fine volley. Then on 28 minutes the visitors pulled a goal back, Milner heading down a cross from Navas for David Silva to prod home.
City were no doubt encouraged at half-time, if not by the 2-1 scoreline, then by the manner of its arrival and by the sight of Guardiola gesticulating on the touchline as the visitors pressed higher up the pitch, leaving space behind, but getting closer to Ribéry who had been almost alarmingly unhurried on the ball in the opening 20 minutes.
After the break City continued to press, with Silva playing up alongside Dzeko and showing that Bayern by no means had the monopoly on craft. City were awarded a penalty on 58 minutes as Milner ran on to Silva's pass and was bundled over by Dante, reward for a prolonged spell of possession. Kolarov rolled the kick into the corner and City were level.
Within four minutes, as Bayern continued to look oddly dazed, they were in front. Navas crossed from the right again, Jérôme Boateng air-hacked his attempted clearance and Milner finished brilliantly, taking the ball down on the run and passing it back into the far corner with wonderful ease. City had scored three times without reply in the space of 26 minutes at the home of the European champions. "Football's coming home," sang the travelling fans, drolly. And by the end it was noise from the City end that filled the stadium as Bayern's European wonder-year ended on a false note.