When Manchester City were drawn to face German Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, it seemed that Erling Håland was the man Pep Guardiola’s side needed to keep under wraps if they wanted to progress to the last four. However, with the fearsome Norwegian relatively tame across the 180 minutes, it was Jude Bellingham who stole the limelight.
Watching the two legs of top-class football, you wouldn’t have known that Bellingham, who signed for Dortmund from Birmingham City for £25 million last summer, is only 17 year of age. In the first leg, he covered every blade of grass in what was an energetic and fearless performance from the teenager.
At his age, it would have been understandable had he shied away into the shadows of a midfield being dominated by the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri and İlkay Gündoğan. Instead, he was everywhere. He was defensively solid as he helped Mateu Morey Bauzà down the left, an area often targeted by Phil Foden and De Bruyne, but for the most part, he was able to keep the opposition quiet.
Then there was his calmness and composure on the ball as Dortmund played out from the back. His knack to find a teammate and ease the pressure piled on by City’s press was much better than you’d expect from a 17-year-old. Then, there is how dangerous he looked when Dortmund got a rare chance to attack.
At times, he almost became a strike partner for Håland. In fact, he had the ball in the back of the net before the referee controversially ruled it out for dangerous play. Bellingham chased down and latched onto an overhit pass from Raphaël Guerreiro, nicking it off City goalkeeper Ederson and slotting it into the host’s empty net.
However, referee Ovidiu Hategan awarded a free kick to City for the challenge from Bellingham on Ederson, and despite the fact that it looked like a fair one, as the official blew his whistle before Bellingham had actually converted, VAR wasn’t able to check it.
Understandably, Bellingham was frustrated when asked about the decision by the media in the aftermath. But, in the second leg, which took place at Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, the 17-year-old was able to get his goal. A blocked shot landed perfectly at his feet on the edge of the area, and Bellingham blasted his shot past Ederson and in off the crossbar.
By half-time in Germany, nobody on the pitch had covered more ground than Bellingham and his goal had put Dortmund in the driving seat for progression to the semi-final, based on the away goal rule. Of course, City, who were more favoured in the betting exchange, turned the result around in the second half with goals from Riyad Mahrez and Foden.
Guardiola was quick to praise Bellingham after the match, jokingly claiming that the midfielder is too good to be just 17.
“I cannot believe it,” said Guardiola. “Maybe he’s a liar! He’s so good for 17 years old! I saw one image where he didn’t get the ball from the central defenders and how he shouted, how he demands the ball to him at 17 years old means a lot.
“I spoke with his manager Edin [Terzić] and he told me that ‘Pep, what you are seeing in these two games is every time in training sessions.’ So, they have a huge talent.”
Championship side Birmingham were mocked for their decision to retire Bellingham’s No.22 shirt, which he donned on just 44 appearances for the midlands outfit. Yet, with every passing game he plays, their decision looks more justified. He will leave the same kind of mark on Dortmund when he moves on for a huge fee in the future.
There’s no doubt that England fans will now want him at the European Championships this summer. However, with so much competition already in England’s midfield, it looks unlikely. But, his time to earn more caps on the international stage will come sooner rather than later. In the meantime, he just needs to keep doing what he’s doing.