Manchester City: Paris may be the turning point in difficult relationship with Champions League

A sense of belief will replace grievances if Manuel Pellegrini's side can progress to the semi-finals

Mark Ogden
Chief Football Correspondent
Thursday 07 April 2016 22:48
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Kevin De Bruyne celebrates his opening goal at the Parc des Princes
Kevin De Bruyne celebrates his opening goal at the Parc des Princes

They don’t quite ‘get’ the Champions League at Manchester City, or at least they didn’t until Wednesday night in the Parc des Princes.

Ever since the club broke into Europe’s elite in 2011, three years after Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan’s transformative takeover, City have been waiting for the night when the Champions League sinks into the collective psyche of everyone from the senior officials through to the supporters in the stands.

There have been victories against Bayern Munich, encounters with Barcelona and Real Madrid, but the only thread which has consistently run through City’s Champions League story has been a sense of grievance against Uefa, rooted in Financial Fair Play penalties and the turning of a blind eye to punishments for racist chanting in Moscow.

Wednesday’s 2-2 quarter-final draw against Paris Saint-Germain has altered the narrative ahead of next Tuesday’s second-leg, however.

Finally, at the fifth time of asking, City are now tantalisingly close to becoming a serious player in the Champions League, with a semi-final beckoning and the prospect opening up of a route through to the final in Milan on May 28.

So when next Tuesday comes around, the booing of the Champions League anthem will take a back seat to the real task of driving Manuel Pellegrini’s team on to the result which will ensure new ground is broken by reaching the last four.

"I have a good feeling.,” said City forward Sergio Aguero. “This was an important result and we are going to be very excited to play the second game, especially because it will be at home in front of all our fans.

“But we can't take anything for granted. We have 90 minutes more and we must do our best in Manchester.”

Notwithstanding Aguero’s caution, City and their supporters now believe they can go all the way to Milan - if the semi-final line-up is City, Benfica, Wolfsburg and Atletico Madrid, as it may well be, they will believe they can go all the way and win it.

It is a subtle change of focus. Belief replaces grievance and, if City progress, the turning point in their difficult relationship with the Champions League will always be traced back to one night in Paris.

It was the night City showed they could secure an important result in Europe without the totemic figures of Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure - Kompany has a chance of returning from a calf injury to shore up the unconvincing defence next Tuesday - and also the occasion which highlighted the importance of Kevin De Bruyne to Pellegrini’s team.

The Belgian midfielder, recently restored to fitness following a two-month lay-off with a knee injury, opened the scoring in Paris and proved a constant threat down the right with his energy and direct runs at PSG’s hapless left-back, Maxwell.

"Kevin is fundamental for us and it was good that he was able to come back from injury and have such a good return,” Aguero said.

Joe Hart, the goalkeeper who saved a third successive Champions League penalty by denying Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the first-half, echoed Aguero’s insistence that De Bruyne has become a pivotal figure since his £54m summer arrival from Wolfsburg, who put themselves on the brink of the last four with a surprising 2-0 home victory against Real Madrid on Wednesday.

“He’s a brilliant player, Kevin,” Hart said. “He’s another one of our attackers who is a top, top player and the more that are fit the better for us.

“We’ve got goalscorers and we just need to improve as a team by keeping goals out at our end and keep scoring at the other.”

Hart’s reference to City’s defensive frailties underlines the concerns surrounding the team’s Achilles heel.

Without a world-class full-back available to Pellegrini on either flank, the likes of Angel di Maria and Lucas Moura, dropped in favour of Edinson Cavani in Paris, are likely to be deployed to cause havoc by Laurent Blanc at the Etihad Stadium next Tuesday.

And if Kompany fails to recover in time to play, Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi will be left to continue their central defensive partnership which, despite playing alongside each other with Porto, remains a work in progress.

“We obviously want to shore it up a little bit more but that is the ideal world,” Hart said. “But we know it is going to be another open game next week.

“It is two very positive teams playing against each other, even though both will want to cut out one or two little mistakes that we made in the first game.”

Progress is being made by City, even before Pep Guardiola arrives to add his Champions League expertise, and Hart insists they can overcome PSG to make it into the semi-finals next week.

“They are a dangerous team, but we are always going to believe we are a good team as well,” Hart said. “We’ve got a lot of good players and there is a lot more to come from us.”

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