Manchester City produced a mature, resilient performance in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final tie against Paris Saint-Germain, and harnessed the two away goals they had scored at the Parc des Princes a week earlier. Kevin de Bruyne scored an absolute peach to ensure City’s progress to the semi-finals was on the back of an aggregate victory – of 3-2 – and not just on away goals. Etihad Stadium filled by a record 53,009 fans, witnessed one of the best performances from City this season and had much to shout and eulogise about at the final whistle.
This City-PSG tie was tantalisingly poised ahead of the return leg at the Eastlands, after the first 90′ had finished level on 2-2. Cityzens held a slight advantage, but Laurent Blanc’s men were not expected to produce another meek display. Hampered by injuries and suspensions, though, the Parisians knew that they had to produce a near-pristine performance to make their first semi-final appearance in over two decades.
City also had to play better than they did in Paris. They made some rudimentary defensive errors in the first leg and were quite fortuitous to not pay the price for their poor start to that game. The pressure, though, was firmly on PSG, as they were expected to upstage City at the time the draw was made. I am sure that they also had a bit of psychological pressure to overcome, having been knocked out at this stage of the competition in three consecutive seasons prior to this one.
Looking back on a 3-2 aggregate victory for City, which three aspects of this tie, although fundamental, are worth a mention?
A team effort from City
How often in recent seasons have we been able to describe a Champions League victory for City as a team performance? Last season’s 0-2 victory against AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico was one, sure, and the 1-3 victory against Sevilla in the Group D encounter this season was another. But overall, City have been rescued on numerous occasions by Sergio Aguero and Joe Hart especially.
Wednesday night’s showing was a complete team effort from City . Yes, they had a coruscating attacking trio in Aguero, David Silva and de Bruyne, two of whom were capable of winning the game on their own. But, it’s hard to not look at it as a comprehensive performance.
At the back, Gael Clichy was an unsung hero who nullified the attacking threat carried by Gregory van der Wiel and di Maria; Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi produced a good defensive performance and Bacary Sagna kept close tabs on Cavani too, with adequate support from Jesus Navas. The quintet mentioned above were rather integral to City keeping a cleansheet against a PSG side that did not carry a lot of goal threat but still had to be stymied and handled scrupulously.
And the mentions cannot end there, simply.
The reason being the industry and tactical nous exuded by the double pivot of Fernandinho and Fernando Reges. While the former bustled with energy and started many of City’s attacks on the night, his compatriot stood strong – for the most part – and ensured that someone like Adrien Rabiot did not have much influence on the game. When in possession, Fernando did surrender the ball on a few occasions; nonetheless, he played well in tandem with Fernandinho.
Silva, who played on the left-hand-side again, dovetailed well with de Bruyne, Fernandinho and Aguero. The Spaniard might not have influenced the game, which he is renowned for, but some of the highlights of his game – keeping possession, twists and turns, to name a couple – were definitely on view at the Etihad.
So, it was a complete team effort from City and even the goal scored by de Bruyne came after City had played 5-6 passes near the PSG penalty area.
Paucity of tactical naivety from Manuel Pellegrini
Yes, there was! Up against Blanc, who masterminded PSG’s R-16 victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season, the Chilean manager showed great acumen and made his side a lot more solid than they have been, generally, during his reign.
Pellegrini has talked quite a lot about his team playing front-foot football, which, let me tell you, means pressing your opponent high up the pitch, passing with purpose when you have the ball and having an unflinching attitude to score goals. This season, in particular, City have lacked incision and been insipid, to put it succinctly. The 2013/14 English champions have scored just 58 goals in 32 Barclays Premier League fixtures this season, an indication of how poor they have been in an attacking sense.
Against PSG a couple of nights back, they were resilient and totally confounded the Parisians. Blanc, speaking after the game, said: “We thought City’s defence might be vulnerable. They were very solid, very compact, they surprised me.” Which just goes to show you how City transcended their defensive game to stifle PSG’s attacking players. City also beat the Ligue 1 champions at their very own game, by pressing them high up the pitch, not giving them time on the ball to dictate play and in the end, forcing them to be satisfied with just ball retention.
A very similar tactical blueprint was followed by City at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium last November, and they annihilated Unai Emery’s side by 1-3 that night.
In seven words, it was a “tactical masterclass” from Pellegrini.
PSG’s performance over two legs was strange
While City can be extremely proud of their overall performance, PSG will be absolutely disappointed. They were challenged by Pellegrini’s men who deserved to go through. But from PSG’s perspective, they simply could not counter City’s tactics.
Injuries and suspensions hampered them hugely, with Thiago Motta too picking up a hamstring injury towards the end of the first half on Tuesday night. They lacked energy in the middle of the park, where many expected them to dwarf City, with their dynamic ball-playing midfielders in Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti in particular. Blanc did not blame the absence of his key players for the defeat, but in hindsight, he might have been able to affect the tie better if he had those options.
Generally speaking, PSG did not get in behind the City backline many times, and neither were they successful when they tried to go long and bypass the midfield. Ibrahimovic was able to bully the City backline on a few occasions in Paris, where they mounted a strong comeback in the second half. They played a more direct style with Maxwell and Serge Aurier getting crosses into the box and finding the Uruguayan and Swede, who made a nuisance of themselves and posed plenty of goal threat during a 30-minute spell. At the Etihad Stadium, though, Mangala and Otamendi were unfazed by the long-ball tactic employed by PSG.
City will take plenty of confidence from their solid performance against the Ligue 1 champions. Their semi-final opponent – who will be one among Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid – is likely to pose an even bigger test than PSG did. City, though, have done well by being the underdogs and they, more than anyone else, will feel that there is an advantage for them in the semi-finals too.