In the end. When Pep Guardiola was appointed Manchester City manager in 2016, it was with the specific task of winning the Champions League. Five years later, a 2-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain (4-1 on aggregate), has secured a place in the club’s first Champions League final, bringing Guardiola back to that stage by first time in a decade.
The knockout phase of the Champions League has brought frustration after frustration to Guardiola, to the point of leading him at times to doubt his philosophy. There have been mishaps, there have been mistakes, there have been strange team selections, but here at last, there has been nothing to stop him. PSG unsettled City in the first half of the first leg, but then City was far superior, smarter, more skilled, calmer and better. This was an overwhelming victory for the collective over the individual.
PSG may point to their bad luck by losing Kylian Mbappé to a calf injury (he missed the entirety of Tuesday’s second leg), but that’s the problem with investing in hugely expensive individuals at the expense of the team: sometimes it is break. Meanwhile, Neymar, as PSG’s obvious focus, was perpetually outnumbered. And elsewhere, the shortcomings in the PSG team, particularly on the side, were clear.
However, the biggest deficiencies are emotional and psychological. PSG had lost discipline in the first leg and did so again on Tuesday. Ángel Di María was sent off in the middle of the second half for a stamp on Fernandinho, and all Marco Verratti, Leandro Paredes, Presnel Kimpembe and Danilo could have easily followed him. Manchester City in Europe have been a team that have struggled to cope with adversity, often conceding goals in flurries, but at least they have never responded so petulantly. Even with 2-0 of the day, there was a chance with a quarter of the game left. A goal could have caused panic, especially with the goal line in sight. But instead of seeking victory, PSG succumbed to childishness, self-pity and a series of terrible fouls.
PSG, as they were supposed to, started on the front foot and for a while it looked like there might be a repeat of last week’s first leg as they dominated possession from the start. A penalty awarded by Oleksandr Zinchenko for handball was disallowed after VAR showed the ball had hit the top of his shoulder, but City looked clearly uneasy.
And then out of nowhere he took the lead, hitting the space behind PSG’s exceptionally high line, almost the opposite of City’s usual experience in big European knockout games. The move seemed planned in advance, with goalkeeper Ederson sweeping the long ball for Zinchenko just as he burst into the PSG half. He threw the ball straight for Kevin De Bruyne and although his effort was blocked, Riyad Mahrez rebounded.
That almost visibly reassured City, while PSG grew increasingly frantic. From about 15 minutes on, the dynamic felt like the last 15 minutes of a game, with PSG advancing in a frenzy. Marquinhos, a threat from set pieces as he had been last week, bounced a header off the crossbar, and Di María missed the goal after stripping Bernardo Silva, who had been pressured by Ederson’s attempt to play quickly.
But the most controlled football came from City. There may have been a few bodies in the defense line, Ruben Dias in particular, but for the most part this was defending in numbers, controlling space and frustrating PSG, while always looking dangerous on the counter. Fernandinho, on his 36th birthday, was exceptional, organized the midfield and fouled in sufficient disguise to avoid a warning.
A second goal came to finish the tie shortly after the hour. Again it was a well-worked counter, and again Mahrez finished it off, this time after De Bruyne slipped through Phil Foden. After that, only two questions remained: how many goals City would win and how many players PSG would have left on the field in the end.
The tie was actually won in the second half of the first leg, but this was a master class in keeping an opponent at arm’s length, seizing their chances, and staying calm in the face of intense provocation. It was a performance that spoke volumes about Man City’s maturity this season. The League Cup is already in the cabinet and the Premier League will follow soon, as early as this weekend. Chelsea or Real Madrid await in the grand prize final in Istanbul at the end of the month, the prize that City have invested in and yearned to win all this time.
More soccer coverage:
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.