This could have been the battle of Europe’s nouveau riche for a place in the biggest game of them all, but as the ball pulled its way along a playing field scarred by the cool conditions, you might have been forgiven for thinking Manchester City had been transported back to the late 90s and their gloomy midwinter battles with Walsall and Macclesfield Town.
The smattering of early May snow seemed like a fun side show in the first half, but its impact on the case early on was quite more marked. Passes made painful progress for their teammates whose grip on the surface was rarely secure. Two of the most technically gifted teams in Europe spent much of the early knockout rejecting simple passes and slipped and slid into each other as if this were a Champions League It’s a knockout crossover.
Under such conditions, City somehow constructed to cast themselves as the brave underdogs who desperately held on to their lead under hostile conditions that seemed to have discombulated their wealthy opponents. This was not the football that Pep Guardiola has been pioneering for over a decade and a half. From the moment Riyad Mahrez doubled his side’s advantage in a draw, this was low possession and defending in number of football made to perfection.
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A pass in the 35th minute characterizes City’s extraordinary defense. PSG were well placed with plenty of men up on the pitch and possession just within the attacking third. One would think that the visiting team that meets massaged ranks in Ligue 1 every week might be able to charm themselves through the two defensive banks, but City shut them down with such ferocity that the ball went straight back from the top of Keylor Navas’s goal in goal. It was a cycle that PSG repeated ad nauseam, at best the scenario was the kind of shot with low probability that Ander Herrera escaped in a subsequent passage.
By this time, City were already ahead thanks to long ball football with more than a smattering of elan. There was no farming at Ederson’s pass to free Oleksandr Zinchenko down to the left, this was counterattack performed to perfection. That’s the kind of thing Neymar and company have specialized in during the tournament, but tonight they were simply not allowed to do so.
For an hour, Mauricio Pochettino’s side did everything they might have realistically tried to beat this team. First came an energetic press that is only as effective when City’s goalkeeper Pinger passes through the sleet and snow as Aaron Rodgers. Then an even display of possession first football that eventually saw them move from left to right and then left and then right.
Eventually it came down to beating and hoping a series of ambitious and unlikely efforts that Ruben Dias and John Stones secured would not even bother Ederson. One night when City blocked as many shots as they had in the Premier League or European games since 2014, their goalkeeper had almost nothing to do.
In fact, this could have been an evening for Pep Guardiola to do well with his proclamations that Ederson could play in midfield, he pinged passes with greater accuracy than Herrera or Leandro Paredes, while Dias in particular managed to get in the way of any shot on goal .
On Crown Night so far in their remarkable season, it was propriat that Dias was undoubtedly the best player on the pitch. City’s return to the English Football Summit and their status as the best team in Europe, which they are strong favorites to confirm in Istanbul later this month, is built on an excellent defense anchored by the Portuguese international. His defensive energy was contagious when shots clapped off him, so did they from the Stones and Zinchenko. Kyle Walker and Fernandinho thundered in challenges – often without success – but even when they did not win the ball, they forced their visitors firmly but fairly.
Between them, the Stones and Dias have blocked 12 shots in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Ederson has made 11 saves. It’s almost as if Guardiola has three goalkeepers when the ball comes close to the City field.
When it comes to PSG, when you have tried everything and you can not so much pull a save from the opposing goalkeeper, and when you only dominate the possession to be cut through by two excellent counter-attacks, it is understandable that they should lose their cool just like they did in the first stage. None of Pochettino’s side lacked effort, even Neymar streamed back at a rapid pace as City battled against Riyad Mahrez’s second goal.
This move was all that has made this team one of the best on the continent since Guardiola’s points. Phil Foden was direct and fearless. De Bruyne spotted angles that should not be there. Mahrez finished the move in the same emphatic way that he, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and others have been for years now.
But if that’s what we have come to expect from City, the resilience, discipline and fearlessness with which they defended their lead was something completely new for this season. That is what has given them the advantage on nights like tonight and maybe even watching Guardiola at the top of European football again.