AS Monaco have a two-goal deficit to make up against Manchester City when the teams meet at the Stade Louis II on Wednesday night (15 March), having lost the first leg 5-3 at the Etihad Stadium.
Football and sports, in general, just never cease to amaze us and sports is one of the lovable things on planet Earth.
Wait… we can even go a step further and say that following sports can be seriously addictive!
And you don’t even have to be an ardent supporter of a football team, a cricket team or even an athlete, to fall in love with following sports. The excitement that stems from the unpredictability and high-octane nature of most sports and games is enough to inebriate us.
Think I am overstating matters?
Well, think again.
Because, last Wednesday night, the world witnessed a totally outrageous football match be played out at the Camp Nou, between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.
No football club had managed to win a two-legged knockout tie in a European competition when they had a four-goal deficit from the first leg to make up.
But then Barcelona went ahead and accomplished the unthinkable and ridiculed the pre-match opinions people had formed. Pure and simple. Luis Enrique’s men won the second leg 6-1, to win the tie 6-5 on aggregate. Even an away goal for PSG wasn’t enough to see them through.
Yes, you can point to the erroneous and meek officiating, a possible result of the tension stemming from the size of the occasion, and how the Blaugrana benefitted from the same. But take nothing away from the Catalan giants for finding a way and setting a precedent.
They were 3-0 up inside 50 minutes of the second leg, and so, the officiating wasn’t entirely to blame after all. And Lionel Messi didn’t even have to run the show, as we thought he had to if his team had to overcome Unai Emery’s side and reach their 10th straight UEFA Champions League quarter-final, after losing the first leg at the Parc des Princes 4-0.
Before this match, Barcelona were realistically quite capable of rewriting history. They had a team within their team, who were capable of ripping PSG apart. If you were and are to back one football team to accomplish a task of this size, you will probably have backed Barcelona, and do so in future too.
As for Emery’s side, the hard work had been done at home. And, although the tie is played over 180 minutes, the equation was straightforward for the Parisians: do not concede four goals at the Nou Camp or, in other words, do not lose the second leg by four goals or more.
But PSG, in doing the obvious and what was a universal expectation—of sitting back, allowing Barcelona to come at them and then counter-attack quickly—failed to do what they do best: keep possession, create chances and play on the front-foot. They created and fell into their own trap, essentially. Emery, despite having benched Angel di Maria, had players like Marco Verratti, Blaise Matuidi and Adrien Rabiot, among others, to play the crisp passing, possession game, which, mind you, PSG are known for, and drive home the advantage.
Fundamentally, therefore, PSG’s game plan was too obvious for their own liking and completely undid the fantastic work they had done in the first leg.
What Barcelona’s victory also reminded to us was that football, like most other sports, is played in the mind too and isn’t always about skill and tactics.
Champions League: AS Monaco vs Manchester City, 15 March
The scenario concerning AS Monaco and Leonardo Jardim, ahead of the return leg at home on Wednesday night, is quite similar to Barcelona’s, but the Ligue 1 leaders are in a much more favourable position than Enrique’s men were after their first leg meeting with PSG.
Monaco are in a far better position because they scored three away goals in the first leg. Of course, the French side did lose 5-3 at the Etihad and were gutted with the end result, but Barcelona showed us that a first-leg lead does not count for much if you get your game plan wrong and make a sluggish start to the second 90′.
Hence, I can tell you this: Manchester City were delighted to win the first leg by 5-3, having come from 1-2 and 2-3 behind. After the final whistle was blown on February 21, the Blues were particularly delighted with the two-goal cushion they had earned themselves by putting up an incisive attacking display in the last 20 minutes of the first leg.
But, having seen Barcelona come from 0-4 down in the first leg and win the tie 6-5, Guardiola’s men will feel a lot more insecure now, about their two-goal lead in the R-16 tie against Monaco.
Like with PSG, Manchester City have a lead to hold on to and they must produce another good attacking display while being a lot more solid at the back—as has been echoed by Yaya Toure—to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals.
Fundamentally speaking, the first goal in the second leg will be mighty important. Purely because Monaco have scored three away goals and winning the second leg by a two-goal margin—as long as they restrict Wednesday night’s visitors to scoring just two goals—will see them go through at the expense of City.
Which is why Guardiola’s team need to produce a complete performance to get into the Champions League quarters for the second successive season. As we saw in the PSG vs Barcelona tie, a lot of the match will be played in the mind and the first goal can either dent or provide a boost to City’s morale.
Manchester City, given their style of play under Guardiola, are unlikely to cede possession and look to play on the counter-attack. But then, tomorrow’s visitors at the Stade Louis II will have to defend well against this season’s most potent attacking force in Europe, comprising the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar, among others.
Barcelona’s win last mid-week is likely to have emboldened Monaco and cautioned City, who, as a result, face more of a test of their character than skill.
Who is your money on ahead of tomorrow’s night’s fixture in Monaco?