It was hard to not notice the symbolism or statement about two teams in a Champions League final that are owned by entities so rich as to be unbothered by The Super League. PSG never joined, and Manchester City were the first ones out after joining with not much more than a shrug. But that’s to be studied at a different time.
What this semifinal was for sure was a meeting of two super clubs still lacking the validation of a European Cup. While City have lorded over the Premier League for most of the decade now, and PSG crashing the penthouse of European elite about the same time, both of their reigns have felt just a touch empty, especially to them. Both have craved a Champions League victory to seal their place among the game’s elite, and perhaps a thumb in the eye of the old money clubs that for so long sought to keep them out of the secret society. City hired Pep Guardiola for this specific task, and PSG have cycled through several managers with the hope that the next one will provide them the fix they’ve always chased.
It’ll be City who get the chance to graduate from the ranks of the uncrowned this year, as they simply smothered PSG for three-quarters of the semifinal to run out 4-1 winners on aggregate. It might not have been that close. And PSG will spend the summer wondering how it might have been different if they’d just had the backbone that Guardiola has instilled in City.
Because after 45 minutes last week, it was PSG who looked the swaggier. They were far better than City, and then took a 1-0 lead into half and probably should have had one or two more goals. And that’s where it stopped. PSG just wanted to defend and hold to that one goal and more importantly not concede an away goal. PSG might have thought they were built for that after last year’s run to the final. But holding out Atalanta and RB Leipzig after the restart in a neutral venue for one game in August is a little different than trying to do that to the best team in the world (and that’s no longer up for any debate, if it ever was,) over two legs.
PSG never looked comfortable trying to defend and counter, as both take some steel and confidence. It’s not just about the belief to defend against a mesmerizing array of attacking talent, and following runners and the discipline to know when to go for the ball and when to not. It’s the belief that you can play through the press of City trying to win the ball back, that you can take the extra beat to open them up and have all the space in the world to counter in and not give the ball away.
PSG couldn’t do either. Kylian Mbappe barely had a touch, Neymar couldn’t navigate the swarm of City pressers, Angel Di Maria disappeared. PSG eventually surrendered two goals, and ended proceedings in Paris with Idrissa Gueye picking up a petulant, reckless, stupid, and selfish red card.
For the return leg today, City were only too happy to show PSG where they’d gone wrong, and what they couldn’t do. Guardiola may never get full credit for the masterful manager that he is, given the resources he has. But his transformation of this City team into Troy’s walls to combat the overpacked schedule is nothing short of genius. City are more than happy to defend, to repel whatever PSG had to throw at them. They aren’t afraid of not having the ball. You only need to see the way their defenders celebrated blocked shots as if they were goals to know.
And City have never lacked the courage to play through a press, which is how they opened up PSG like a can of tuna to score their opener. City never shirked the challenge. Shorn of Mbappe through injury, Neymar was again swamped, Di Maria disappeared, and Mauro Icardi a non-entity. It was the soccer version of big brother keeping his hand on little brother’s forehead while little brother’s too short arms flailed. City was almost never threatened.
And PSG ended proceedings with Angel Di Maria picking up a petulant, reckless, selfish, and stupid red card (which sadly resulted in some pretty bigoted commentary from CBS analyst Jim Beglin which he had to apologize for on-air not 10 minutes later).
PSG perhaps should have learned their lesson from the quarterfinal, when they didn’t so much defend brilliantly as benefit from Robert Lewandowski being hurt and Bayern Munich only having inflatable car companions as replacements. City has no such problems.
There has always been a sense around PSG that they’re an expensive collection of great players, but not a cohesive unit. Guardiola and City showed them what that would look like.