The crazy thing and the greatest tribute to how Manchester City reshaped this Champions League semi-final first-leg with a second-half performance that will live long in the memory was Paris Saint-Germain could be happy to lose by only one.
The French champions called the tune in the first half, scoring early through Marquinhos and with Neymar in the mood, running through his magician’s repertoire. At that point, it was difficult to foresee what would follow, even if City had flickered a few times in the final third.
Pep Guardiola’s team never lost sight of their manager’s instructions. He had urged them to be calm, to express themselves; above all, to enjoy the occasion because this type of game does not come around too often. It was only the second time City had reached the semi-finals of Europe’s elite competition.
The most stunning of turnarounds was marked by the composure in City’s ranks, how they did not panic and, instead, trusted their quality would come through. It was PSG who lost their way, the symbol of their breakdown being Idrissa Gueye’s 77th‑minute red card for a spiteful rake of Ilkay Gündogan’s achilles.
By then City had scored their two away goals and PSG could not accept the manner in which they had been outmanoeuvred. After losing in last season’s final to Bayern Munich, they believed that they could take the decisive step and win their first Champions League title. That dream appears to lie in ruins.
City had emerged for the second period with greater purpose: pressing higher, closing down their opponents’ passing lanes. Slowly but surely the conviction entered their systems and the key moment, as so often, was provided by Kevin De Bruyne.
Accepting a pass from the substitute Oleksandr Zinchenko, to the left-hand side of the PSG area, he bent a tantalising ball towards the far post, hoping that Rúben Dias or even the late-arriving John Stones could meet it but knowing that if they did not, it could sneak into the bottom corner.
Which is what happened, Keylor Navas unable to react in time.
City had rushed their moves for most of the first half, wanting to get forward too quickly but now they showed their patience, taking better care of the ball and it led to control. PSG had a second-half breakaway when Kylian Mbappé crossed and Marco Verratti could not stretch to apply the decisive touch but it was an isolated attack.
City sensed blood and they tasted it after Riyad Mahrez, their star turn, asked De Bruyne whether he could take a free-kick just outside the PSG area. De Bruyne said yes and Mahrez’s shot found its way through the wall and past Navas.
PSG’s dream start felt like a long time ago, their control of most of the first half heading for footnote status. Marquinhos’s goal came when he rose unchallenged to guide Ángel Di María’s corner inside the far post. The delivery was marvellous, flat and quick and Marquinhos, tiptoeing away from Gündogan and through City’s zonal marking, could use the pace on it. The PSG manager, Mauricio Pochettino, barely flinched. Inside, his heart leapt.
Neymar was almost unplayable in the first half, taking the breath with his balance, quick feet and explosiveness, particularly in tight spaces. He had a second-minute chance after Rodri was robbed and Mbappé released him only to shoot at Ederson while it was his shot that forced the corner that led to the breakthrough. Among Neymar’s many other moments before the interval was the corner that Leandro Paredes glanced narrowly wide at the near post.
In so many key games, the release of Guardiola’s lineup leads to discussion, conjecture. Not here. His lineup was as expected; no tricks, no over-thinking.
With no recognised No 9, De Bruyne pushed high at the tip of the formation although, as ever, it was fluid. Bernardo Silva could move up in support of him while De Bruyne flitted, sometimes swapping with Phil Foden on the left. Mahrez bristled with menace off the right.
De Bruyne said that City changed the way they pressed midway through the first half and it led to chances, with the big one being created for Foden.
Paredes gave the ball away to Kyle Walker, who found Silva and, one square pass later, the shot was on for Foden. Ten yards out, he blasted it too close to Navas, who tipped over.
Earlier, Navas had saved from Silva at his near post following João Cancelo’s deep cross while Parades’s flying clearance took the ball away from Silva. Navas had passed straight to Foden, whose cross was headed goalward by Mahrez. It was apparent that PSG could be pressured into errors.
De Bruyne directed an overhead kick too high before his goal and there were further sightings at 2-1 for Foden and the Belgian. PSG looked broken.
For City, the likelihood of a first Champions League final looms large.
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