Man City through to the Champions League finals as Pochettino’s trophy curse continues
It was the classic sucker punch, a counter-attacking masterpiece and, when Phil Foden crossed and Riyad Mahrez scooped the finish high into the Paris St-Germain net, the only disappointment was that the stands at the Etihad Stadium were empty. What a scene it would have been.
At that point, Mahrez had two, PSG were broken, having previously hinted at getting the goal they needed to make a game of it, and Manchester City knew. For the first time in their history, they are going to the Champions League final.
When the money started pouring in from Abu Dhabi, this was the dream. It has taken time and the journey has taken in plenty of angst and heartbreak. And yet now the club are one game against either Chelsea or Real Madrid in Istanbul from the ultimate glory.
Pep Guardiola had predicted that his City players would suffer and they did. They put their bodies on the line to keep PSG at bay, with all of their defenders excellent but, when Mahrez plundered for the second time, the tension melted away.
City had managed the tie and their emotions; PSG lost themselves in the rush to exact the wrong kind of vengeance. Ángel Di María was sent off for a petulant stamp on Fernandinho and there would be a flutter of yellow cards for them, with some verging on a darker colour.
A pre-match statistic had shown that of 319 teams to have won the first-leg of a European Cup or Champions League tie away from home, only eight had failed to progress – and none of them were from England. One of them had been PSG, who were eliminated by Manchester United in 2018-19 and another was Ajax in that same season – humbled by Pochettino’s Spurs in the semi-final.
Pochettino’s focus and that of everyone else was on this moment and on this pitch, which began the game flecked by hailstones. In early May. The groundstaff had needed to rake it off the lines before kick-off. The surreal comes as standard these days and the underfoot conditions were tricky.
Against the chill, City’s nerves had jangled early on, and so had those of the referee, Björn Kuipers, who pointed to the penalty spot on six minutes after PSG appeals for a handball against Oleksandr Zinchenko. An Abdou Diallo cross had flicked off Rúben Dias and crashed into Zinchenko’s shoulder and it really was a mystery as to why Kuipers made his decision. Happily for City, VAR made the over-rule.
City felt better when they took the lead and it was Ederson who got the move started with a magnificent long ball from the edge of his own area for the onrushing Zinchenko. PSG were caught cold. With Phil Foden tearing into the six-yard box, Zinchenko’s cut back smartly for Kevin De Bruyne and, when his shot was blocked by Alessandro Florenzi, the ball broke for Riyad Mahrez, who finished from a tightish angle.
For PSG, it did not change too much. They still needed two. And they did plenty to threaten the first during the opening quarter. Marquinhos rose to guide a header against the crossbar while there was the moment when Ederson rolled out to Bernardo Silva, who dawdled and was robbed by Di María. With Ederson in a poor position, Di María had plenty of the goal to aim at from the edge of the area. He curled inches wide.
City made mistakes in the first-half. There was anxiety at times when they tried to play out from the back and one or two loose passes in midfield. Guardiola howled in frustration when Fernandinho gave away the ball in a dangerous area and PSG could sense opportunity. Neymar and Di María flickered but, to Pochettino’s frustration, their end product was poor.
PSG had the better of the possession and the territory in the first-half but what City did well before the interval was to get men around the ball on the cover and keep their shape. City almost nicked a second on 45 minutes when Mahrez saw Keylor Navas block a shot from an even tighter angle and, from the rebound, Silva’s curler deflected wide.
The scene was different at the start of the second-half with virtually all of the sleet scraped from the pitch. Two dozen or so groundstaff had worked purposefully during the break and it was easy to imagine Guardiola having given them the order. Perish the thought that the Manchester weather would stand in City’s way.
It was tempting to view Kylian Mbappé’s absence from the starting PSG XI as a boost for City – the forward was not fully fit after a calf injury – and, certainly, his replacement, Mauro Icardi, struggled to impose himself.
City measured their progress as much in chances denied with a big one being when Zinchenko threw himself into a vital block on Neymar. John Stones, who had been beaten in a 50-50 challenge by Di María to spark the move, celebrated wildly with Zinchenko. Dias also threw himself in front of an Ander Herrera volley.
It was still a little nervy and then it was not, Mahrez’s second cutting through the tension and bringing down the red mist on PSG. Foden hit a post but City had enough. They had driven PSG to distraction.