The versatile midfielder was more sharp sword than sturdy shield in masterminding the 3-2 victory over Bayern Munich
When Manchester City went 2-0 down after 12 minutes on Tuesday night away to Bayern Munich – champions of Europe, 7-0 winners in their previous match and all set to put on a swaggeringly pointed display of beefed-up Bavarian tiki-taka – you could hear the doom-laden epitaphs being clattered out ahead of time in the Allianz Arena press box.
With this in mind it is worth setting out again exactly what happened next. James Milner provided the pass for David Silva to pull one back. James Milner won a penalty that levelled the scores. James Milner then scored a brilliant winning goal. Over 90 minutes Bayern's domineering right flank was decisively outmanoeuvred and out-thought in its own stadium by James Milner. Yes: that James Milner.
There were plenty of unlikely subplots from City's superbly resilient 3-2 victory. With luck – and it will take some – the memory of Manuel Pellegrini's mathematical shortcomings will be submerged by a favourable draw in the next stage. Milner's performance, though, is a thing to be treasured.
There are players who tend to draw a disproportionate degree of hostility from football's critical periphery. Milner is undoubtedly one, guyed relentlessly with the national team as a kind of mannequin of mediocrity, a player for whom even virtues – stamina, diligence, understated craft – are represented as a footballing shade of beige made flesh. This has always been misguided. Perhaps after Munich it might even be time to lay the caricature to rest.
The anti-Milner bile has tended to be based on his performances-to-order for England in a rigid shuttle-running position on the right flank. But against Bayern, operating from the more fluid role on the left of City's midfield that uses his relentless movement as a sword as well as a shield, this was a display of Total Milner. When City began their counterattack Milner's steadiness made him an excellent counterpart to the high speed straight lines of Jesús Navas on the opposite flank. As they began to dictate play he was an intelligent, probing presence, evading Philipp Lahm three times to create City's goals and even showing in the finish for the winner a hint of un-Milner-ish arrogance, producing a beautifully cushioned pass into the corner that had a touch of the Agüeros about it.
Even on a night when his influence is tangible Milner tends to fall between the gaps when it comes to match stats, just as City's 42% possession scarcely reflects a well-deserved victory. He had two shots on target, committed two fouls and attempted 39 passes, 77% of them successful, a better ratio than any other City midfielder. Milner's own reaction to a career-high European performance was similarly understated.
"I'd have thought it has to be up there," he said. "The reigning champions and the manner in which we won and the way the game went with us being 2-0 down, starting pretty poorly and the character we showed to turn that around. It was pleasing to be part of that."
If there is confidence to be taken from this victory, for Milner it is as ever something to be filtered around the team. "It is a big boost for us to be able to come here and win our game and score three goals because it's important you can score goals in the knockout stages.
"They're obviously one of the top teams and have been the last few years, so to be able to come here and win is pleasing and hopefully shows the quality we have and gives us a big confidence boost going forward."
Although both sides had already qualified for the knockout phase, this still felt like a landmark victory not just for an unexpected man of the match, but also for City's own European aspirations. As Milner pointed out: "We'll take anyone in the next round now."