Manchester City only expected to reach the Champions League quarter-finals this season, but they may just end up winning the competition next month after finally arriving on the biggest stage with a defining victory against Paris Saint-Germain.
Kevin De Bruyne, the definition of a bargain following his £54.5m summer arrival from Wolfsburg, secured City’s passage to the semi-finals for the first time in the club’s history with a majestic second-half goal which extended PSG’s wait for place in the last four after four successive quarter-final exits.
But after so many stumbles and falls in their Champions League journey, City proved their mettle and right to be paired alongside Europe’s superpowers in Friday’s semi-final draw.
Can they reach the final in Milan on May 28? They are now so close, it would be foolish to write them off.
With Manuel Pellegrini fully aware that this game was potentially his last shot at the Champions League as City manager due to the impending summer arrival of Pep Guardiola at the Etihad, the Chilean displayed rare boldness in his team selection.
If City were going to make the semi-finals, they would so on Pellegrini’s terms and he made two big calls by refusing to risk Vincent Kompany’s fitness at centre-half and also starting with Yaya Toure on the substitutes’ bench.
Kompany and Toure have been untouchables throughout City’s recent rise to prominence, but Pellegrini stood firm. In the case of Kompany, it was a sensible decision, but with Toure, it was purely tactical due to the Ivorian midfielder’s unreliability when asked to perform defensive duties.
And despite the advantage of their two away goals, City knew they would face a stern test of their defensive capabilities against a team of PSG’s attacking threat, despite Laurent Blanc’s surprise decision to deploy a 3-5-2 formation for the first time during his spell in charge of the French champions.
PSG’s ruthless dismantling of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the previous round showcased the Parisiens’ ability to strike quickly on the break – winger Angel di Maria had insisted ahead of the game that this approach would ‘hit City where it hurts’ – and Blanc’s team once again carried an air of menace whenever they entered City territory.
It was not until Zlatan Ibrahimovic forced Joe Hart to tip over his 25-yard free-kick on 16 minutes that the game came to life, however.
Hart won his personal duel with the Swede during the first-leg at Parc des Princes, saving an Ibrahimovic penalty as City secured their 2-2 draw, and the England goalkeeper started well on this occasion.
His City team-mates took longer to hit their stride, but Aguero went close twice in the space of a minute on 23 minutes when he shot into the side-netting from Kevin De Bruyne’s pass before sending a dipping shot wide from the edge of the penalty area.
The Argentine then appeared to have given City a huge chance to edge closer to the semis, however, when he won a 29th minute penalty after being hacked down by goalkeeper Kevin Trapp.
Trapp only avoided a red card from Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo because Aguero was heading away from goal, but that was a close call – in terms of whether it was a penalty, there was no doubt.
But despite his lethal track record, Aguero somehow spurned the opportunity to give City the lead, sending his penalty wide of Trapp’s left-hand post.
It was a let-off for PSG, one which was followed by the setback of the loss of midfielder Thiago Motta due to injury. By replacing Motta with winger Lucas Moura, Blanc reverted to PSG’s usual 4-3-3 formation and the switch ultimately helped the visitors regain control of the game.
But whenever a chance arose, Hart continued to bar their way, with the City keeper frustrating Ibrahimovic again three minutes into the second-half with a full-stretch save from another free-kick.
With Aguero appearing to be compromised by a first-half knee injury, when he was treated on the pitch after landing awkwardly, City’s attacking edge was blunted, enabling PSG to take the initiative, with Thiago Silva forcing a crucial save from Hart with a header from Moura’s 65th minute corner.
But with City sensing a lull in the game and the danger of sitting back to defend their advantage, Pellegrini’s team upped the tempo as they searched for the goal which would as good as seal the tie.
Navas was a threat down the right, Aguero hungry as ever through the middle, but the breakthrough finally came – deservedly so – when De Bruyne broke the deadlock on 76 minutes.
It was a stunning goal from the Belgian, who took a touch to control the ball before curling it beyond Trapp from the edge of the penalty area.
The Etihad erupted and PSG, needing two goals to stay in the tie, simply gave up the fight.
So City march on, with Milan and the ultimate glory of Champions League success now a genuine possibility.
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