At half-time in this semi-final, it seemed like the beginning of the end. It looked like it would be another disappointing Champions League campaign that promised a lot but brought little to Manchester City.
Paris Saint-Germain, another member of the nouveau riche of European football who was desperate to win this competition for the first time, were in the ascendancy. Yet once the two sides reappeared, Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez recalled that a quarter of the way through a two-legged tie is not the time to draw definitive conclusions.
The halfway point either, of course. He’s still only half-time in that two-legged tie, to use the old cliché. But with his players scoring a pair of away goals in next Tuesday’s return leg at the Etihad, Pep Guardiola will be confident that with a performance as composed, as authoritative and as dominant as their display in the second half at the Parc. of the Princes, they will reach next month’s final in Istanbul, the first in club history.
Marquinhos’ precocious header shook City on their heels and a smooth first half performance for Mauricio Pochettino’s side turned many people’s expectations upside down. But with De Bruyne’s fuzzy equalizer and Mahrez’s free-kick, it’s an advantage for the elected Premier League champions. Only two teams in Champions League history failed to reach the final after winning the first leg of an away semi-final.
It was a unique opportunity and a potential watershed moment in the history of the sport: the first semi-final of the Champions League between two clubs owned and largely raised to a level rarefied by rival oil empires.
This inescapable context was highlighted by the combined cost of the two starting formations totaling more than one billion pounds sterling. City could pass themselves off as the poor of the night to those who still matter, with their XI being £ 20million lower than PSG. And yet get rid of it all, and it also promised to be an exciting night out. It did not disappoint.
This first leg – and perhaps the draw itself – still had to be settled by PSG’s threat to the counterattack and City’s ability to cope with it. Guardiola has attempted to dismantle that pre-match consensus, pointing out that PSG show up on the pitch as favorites every weekend to win Ligue 1 and are just as capable of smashing deep defenses as they explode at full speed. The city, however, is not Dijon, Lorient or Nimes and you could bet the Farmers League on Guardiola playing the towering, dominating style that would give Neymar and Mbappé the space behind.
There was a hint of that after just two minutes, with Neymar taking advantage of Rodri’s mistake in midfield to force the first attempt on target, but things quickly started to deviate from the storyline. If anything, it was PSG who came out on top in the game, bending City to their will, forcing Guardiola to react. Four shots had rained on Ederson’s goal after a quarter of an hour. The fifth has entered.
Despite all the talk about the counterattack, the deserved Parisian breakthrough came from a set-play. City’s defense has been exemplary in the Champions League this season but remains weak in dead ball situations. Angel di Maria, not a fan of the city of Manchester, whipped an evil corner from the right, flat and to the beat. Marquinhos’ run through Guardiola’s zonal scoring system was not picked up by a single city player, making his header into the far corner a formality.
It was only the fourth goal City have conceded in European competition this season. Their response to rare adversity would be crucial. To their credit, they survived until half-time, but Leandro Paredes should have made another count of inbound turns shortly before the half-hour mark and instead sent his free header from near the post. “Under pressure in Paris,” tweeted City’s official report. It was one way of putting it.
There is still a wandering self-destruct tension around PSG, however. A lost pass deep in their own territory had prompted Bernardo Silva to pat Phil Foden’s head behind the goal, only for Marquinhos to intervene. Another finicky ball then gave Foden a golden, unmarked opportunity in the center of the penalty area with all the goal mouth to aim for, but Keylor Navas stood up straight and firm to retrieve a shot that was right on him.
It was enough, however, to suggest that the tide could be reversed. Resolved by the fact that three-quarters of that tie remained to be played, City reappeared with more composure. Basically they started to contain and fuel the momentum of PSG. Except for a moment when he almost put Marco Verratti in place, Mbappé fell silent. Neymar too. Guardiola was still not entirely happy with the time and made a rare early change, sacrificing defendant Joao Cancelo, but things would improve quickly.
What is a real attempt at a goal? Probably not, but the uncertain theft of De Bruyne’s delivery seems to be playing in Navas’ mind: should he push the ball away or let his defenders take care of it? The PSG goalkeeper chose the latter and by the time he changed his mind, it was too late. De Bruyne’s cross shot floated away from all heads in the penalty area, then tucked out of reach of Navas.
If City had shown composure, survived and ultimately responded to their previous setback, PSG have not done the same. Quite the reverse, in fact. Paredes characterized their wacky response to the equalizer by conceding a free kick into dangerous territory on Foden and getting a yellow card for his troubles. And as one wall collapsed, another collapsed. Sensationally, Mahrez found the tiny gap between PSG defenders as their bodies turned, pushing his shot through their attempts to block him and enter.
It would get worse from the Parisian’s point of view. Shortly after Neymar was also warned, Idrissa Gueye received a red card for a bad challenge on Ilkay Gundogan, raking his cleats on the back of the city midfielder’s leg long after the ball had gone. and with considerable force. He will be absent from next Tuesday’s rematch at the Etihad, a night that City hope will be historic.