Well, that diminished rapidly. In a night of hectic fortunes, something strange happened in the Parc des Princes. For 30 minutes into the first half, Paris Saint-Germain threatened to strut through a strangely fearful and confused Manchester City.
At the time, PSG simply collapsed like an over-inflated macaron in front of a bright and assertive second half that showcased a City rejigged, led by an alpha dog performance from Kevin De Bruyne in center, right, left, and nearly. all other position in the field.
This 2-1 away win was also a triumph for Pep Guardiola, who did what he was not destined to do here. The idea that Guardiola overthinks these times has become so worn that it is difficult to delve beyond his outer layers and find the truth. All coaches go over, under, or just think about football matches. That is the job. It involves thinking, both successful and unsuccessful. However, Guardiola has a history of flinching too much on these occasions.
And at first he seemed to have made the mistake of cutting the wings of his team, urging caution to his sides in the face of the fearsome power of PSG on the flanks, and leaving a team that is prepared to occupy those positions without his departure, his favorite pass rhythms.
Guardiola had chosen his simplest and strongest team. Happily, this meant going to full Pep, without an orthodox forward, but with the familiar generosity of agile midfielders. Still, though, something was wrong here.
Paris pressed hard, suffocating spaces for City’s dainty, pirouetting inside out. Worse still, the wings had been pinned down. There was none of the usual overhead bravado, the constant turns of the outside lane.
This presented a kind of identity crisis. The lateral is the basic unit of Pep-ness. This is your compass, your scalpel, your favorite tool. Remove the overlapping side and, suddenly, City was speechless and forgetful, a team wandering around with glasses on their foreheads trying to remember what they were looking for. Neymar was sublime in those moments. There was a loud pass, stunned and spun back. There was a ridiculous playground-style dribble, moving like a skater in a pond. In moments like these, Neymar seems to move with a kind of light around him, working in the time of insects, able to see space, angles, movement much faster than anyone else in the field.
At 15 minutes, PSG went ahead. Ángel Di María’s corner from the right was a horrible and deflected howl. Marquinhos ran up front and twisted his neck to throw the ball into the corner.
For a time there was the extraordinary sight of this City team being hunted, beaten, fused, corrupted, while the navy blue jerseys drifted, moved, and strutted in easy little triangles. By halftime, City breathed heavily. Two things happened that turned the game upside down. First, Guardiola returned to his own first principles. He basically decided to play a bit more like Manchester City.
Was Pep thinking less about the game to counter overthinking? Was he thinking about it? Either way, the wings started to play with their wings wide open, given the oxygen to do what they normally do. João Cancelo, in particular, became a sword rather than a shield, allowed to occupy that off-right position until he left the pitch after an hour, in response to a yellow card in the first half.
Second, De Bruyne decided to rise to his full height and assert his own champion qualities, his brilliance even in this rarefied air. De Bruyne was absolutely dominant when it mattered most, all the runs, cues, dribbles, clever diagonal passes.
It even scored the tie. It was both a lucky goal and a reward for skill, precision and mischief on the ball. He caught the ball from the left. He looked up and played that pass – you know, the diagonal crossover, a malevolent thing that entered Paris airspace on that difficult line and length where you’re never sure whether to play.
Navas stared, fearing a head butt in front of him. The ball gently curved into the corner of the net. De Bruyne was not serious. I was serious. Let’s just say he didn’t mean it.
In the space of a Parisian hiatus, a change from the starting position of the full-backs, City had gone from being dominated to a position of crushing ascent. Neymar completely disappeared from this earthly plane.
And in the 71st minute 1-0 down became 2-1 up. Phil Foden had a hand in this one, bundled up after a sniping career. The wall was of faulty construction. Riyad Mahrez was able to drive the ball through a hole with enough power to bulge the net to Keylor Navas’ left.
Kyle Walker, the less celebrated winger, also had a dominant second half. He helped score the second goal with one of those thrilling sprints, hitting the corner flag with the adrenaline abandonment of a man fleeing a burning skyscraper. And by now PSG had lost their singing cold.
Idrissa Gueye was sent off in the 77th minute for a horrendous thrust to the ankle by Ilkay Gündogan.
There had been something endearing, but deeply unconvincing about Guardiola’s cool dad strategy before the game, the insistence that City would enjoy the day, relax, relax. But, curiously, this is what happened here, a thrilling victory derived from hanging it all up and going back to first principles.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism