With Istanbul firmly in their sights, Manchester City gear up for the second leg of their Champions League semi-final showdown with Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad on Tuesday night.
An exemplary second-half showing from Pep Guardiola’s men saw them emerge 2-1 winners from last week’s first leg at the Parc des Princes, during which Marquinhos’s header was cancelled out by strikes from Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez.
Both sides boosted their chances of domestic success at the weekend, as Man City overcame Crystal Palace 2-0 while PSG kept their title hopes alive with a 2-1 win over Lens
As the old saying goes, it truly was a game of two half at the Parc des Princes. After Mauricio Pochettino and Guardiola had exchanged pleasantries on the touchline – a familiar sight from Premier League days gone by – the former’s side began to assume control of the tie, but they only had Marquinhos’s header to show for it.
One would have paid good money to be a fly on the wall during Guardiola’s half-time team talk, as the Catalan coach’s words clearly galvanised Man City to come out all guns blazing in the second period, and they were deservedly level thanks to De Bruyne’s fortuitous effort, which evaded everyone before making the net ripple.
The Belgian playmaker then relinquished free-kick duties to Mahrez, who managed to squeeze the ball through the narrowest of gaps exposed by Leandro Paredes and Presnel Kimpembe to put City in front, and the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe could not come up with any answers to their opponents’ determined performance.
Having banished the demons of three consecutive quarter-final exits, Guardiola has his eyes on the prize and a spot in the showpiece event at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium on May 29 – where Liverpool produced the famed ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ – and they have the Premier League title all but wrapped up after a sucessful outing at Crystal Palace.
One man in particular – Sergio Aguero – would love nothing more than to get his hands on Europe’s most prized piece of silverware before he bids his farewells to City, and the Argentine’s opener preceded a Ferran Torres strike in their 2-0 success over Crystal Palace on Saturday, but Manchester United’s game with Liverpool being postponed means that the champions-elect cannot plan their trophy parade just yet.
Marquinhos’s header was only the fourth goal that Guardiola’s side have conceded in this year’s tournament, and a goalless stalemate with Porto represents the only occasion that City have failed to come up trumps so far – winning 10 out of 11 – but City need not adopt a gung-ho approach this week.
Then again, attack may be the best form of defence for City, who have scored at least two goals in each of their last six Champions League matches, and Guardiola could afford to give a wealth of his attacking players a complete rest at the weekend – such is the ludicrous squad depth in the Etihad ranks.
Guardiola’s side must still navigate another 90 minutes to book their spot in the final, but on the 47 previous occasions that English clubs have won the first leg of a European tie away from home, they have progressed to the next stage 47 times, so avoiding that unwanted record is another incentive for City to get the job done.
Wanted records are also there to be shattered, though, as a seventh consecutive Champions League victory for City would mark the longest European winning streak achieved by an English side, and Guardiola will overtake Carlo Ancelotti’s record of 62 CL knockout games managed this week, but the scoreline in brackets is the only stat that matters on Tuesday night.
Pochettino has already experienced his own fair share of Champions League heartbreaks down the years, and unless the Argentine can inspire a wounded PSG to conquer Man City at the Etihad, Les Parisiens’ agonising wait for a European crown will continue.
Of course, there is still the possibility of PSG coming up against their old leader Thomas Tuchel in the final – with the German hoping to steer Chelsea past perennial champions Real Madrid – and fans would pay a pretty penny for the thoughts of Leonardo and co if such a scenario occurs.
Pochettino’s side cannot waste time fantasizing about back-to-back final appearances just yet, though, as they head to the Etihad Stadium aiming to channel the spirits of Leeds United, Leicester City and Man United – three sides who have already beat Man City on their own turf this term – in their bid to turn the tie on its head.
Les Parisiens did manage to come back from a 2-1 first-leg defeat to dump Borussia Dortmund out of last season’s tournament in the round of 16, but they travel to Manchester having failed to advance in European competition after losing the first leg at home, with defensive lapses at the Parc des Princes last week potentially costing them dear.
PSG continue to fight for success on three fronts, as Pochettino’s side prepare for a Coupe de France semi-final against Montpellier HSC on May 12 amid an enthralling battle for Ligue 1 supremacy, with the reigning champions still second in the table following Saturday’s results.
Neymar and Marquinhos were both on the scoresheet as Pochettino’s much-changed side scraped a 2-1 victory over surprise package Lens at the weekend, but Lille’s victory over Nice later that evening saw Les Dogues swiftly reclaim top spot, and a potential banana skin at Rennes follows for PSG after Tuesday’s second leg.
This could therefore be the week that makes or breaks Pochettino’s time in the PSG dugout. It seems folly to make such a statement so early in his reign, but an exit from the Champions League coupled with the possibility of losing their grip on the title would not appease the demanding Parisiens’ board.
However, PSG prepare for the second leg with the knowledge that they have won their last 10 away matches across all competitions – a run which includes their historic nights at Camp Nou and the Allianz Arena – and six of their last seven Champions League games away from their Paris headquarters have ended in victory.
Pochettino’s attacking forces must quickly find their lost shooting boots if they are to stand a chance this week, as Kylian Mbappe, who is expected to be fit, could not get a single shot away during last week’s first leg – a testament to the tireless work of Guardiola’s defenders en route to what they hope will be a maiden Champions League crown.
Manchester City Champions League form:
Manchester City form (all competitions):
Paris Saint-Germain Champions League form:
Paris Saint-Germain form (all competitions):