Tuesday 28 January 2020

Fans struggle to believe as Sky Blues make European statement

Manchester City fans raise their voices prior to kick off. Photo: Reuters / Darren Staples
Manchester City fans raise their voices prior to kick off. Photo: Reuters / Darren Staples

Jason Burt

'Unmissable' was the slogan splashed across the advertising and social media posts. Unmissable, surely, when Sergio Agüero stepped up to take a first-half penalty.

Unmissable also, even more, was this opportunity for Manchester City to make it through to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time in the club's history. Not a prize in itself but a statement nevertheless. A moment in time as this club prepares to embark on their next phase, the Pep Guardiola era.

City's relationship with this competition remains strained. This felt like it would be a defining night. A night, hopefully, when they would deliver the result and, hopefully also, the performance that secured their status among Europe's elite.

There was ticker tape, explosions cascading from the stands, and there was the largest crowd the Etihad has held for a European match. But there were boos also. They were inevitable. They rang out before the game, with the playing of the Champions League anthem as the City supporters made their customary protest against Uefa, and they rang out again at half-time.

The latter cries were aimed at referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, a focus of City's frustration with the Spaniard's decisions having caused anger and a growing sense of injustice even though he had awarded the penalty. He gave the spot-kick but he only gave Paris St-Germain goalkeeper Kevin Trapp a yellow card for upending Agüero - Manuel Pellegrini demanded to the fourth official Raul Cabanero that Trapp should have been dismissed - but no one expected the City striker to miss. And not just miss but slide his effort wide of the post.

There was a sense of shock at that and a feeling that City should have ended this tie there and then because PSG were struggling. Struggling with an unfamiliar system - they played 3-4-1-2 having spent the past two seasons lining up 4-3-3 - and struggling through poor individual performances, summed up by the display of defender Serge Aurier.

They were also up against it because when Thiago Motta limped off it meant they were shorn of their first-choice midfield, given Marco Verratti was already injured and Blaise Matuidi suspended. And they were struggling with their own weight of expectation.

So this, surely, was unmissable also for City and yet that anxiety was all too evident from them also. The crowd were quiet - did they really believe this was possible? - on an occasion which meant so much to the club. The frustration began to swell.

They were still, not quite, embracing the Champions League. There have been big nights before in the competition in this stadium but not many. There was the 3-2 victory over Guardiola's Bayern Munich in 2014, with two late goals from Agüero to complete a hat-trick, but that was in a group game and the stakes were not the same.

So there was all the build-up and there were 3,000 visiting PSG supporters but it felt more like both clubs did not quite know which way this was heading. There was no real sense of destiny. It was anxious rather than epic.

For PSG, also, this is not quite new but they were desperately hoping to move into new territory. The French champions have reached the quarter-finals for four seasons in a row but have yet to go beyond the last eight. They, like City, have limitless ambition and huge resources, and needed to break through that ceiling. This was, therefore, a night for a new European superpower to emerge.

Reaching the last four would move them into a new category alongside Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern.

Thirty-eight times English clubs have also been in the last four of the European Cup, in its two guises, but never before had City done it (Manchester United have achieved the feat 12 times). So this was their chance; a golden one against a PSG side wracked with the same apprehension despite their stellar line-up.

That City marketing drive had sold the notion of coming to see 'Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Co' and while it made economic sense, in terms of trying to push up ticket sales, it smacked of City not quite feeling they belonged in this company.

It was no surprise that Ibrahimovic provided PSG's main threat even if it was another curious night for him and he drew a fine save from Joe Hart with a fierce free-kick to again fray City's nerves. There was another scare when City benefited from an offside call, a close but a correct one, before substitute Lucas Moura turned the ball into the net. It was on a knife-edge, so marginal. So tense. A goalless scoreline would see City through and would allow them to claim a big name when it really mattered, a club with whom so many comparisons have been made.

But one goal would change it all in a game that no one expected to be goalless given the poverty of the defending in the first leg and the attacking power available . The unmissable opportunity continued to be unrelentingly tense even after Kevin De Bruyne's late goal. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


The Throw-In: Dublin-Kerry cracker, scrap the advanced mark and Limerick's psychological boost

In association wth Allianz

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport