History for Manchester City, misery for Paris Saint-Germain. A tie that came with a guarantee that accusations of expensive underachievement could be levelled in one direction saw billion-pound investments collide and divide. England’s fourth-placed team rumbled onwards raucously, booing the Champions League anthem, cheering the final whistle. Serial failures have been reinvented as semi-finalists. Meanwhile, the most dominant side in the history of French football exited with thoughts turning to an inquest.
PSG have been eliminated in the quarter-finals for the fourth successive season. They have removed the drama from Ligue 1, stripping a division of its competitive balance and, some would say, disfiguring French football. Yet at the highest level, the project has stalled. “We need to ask ourselves good questions and find answers,” admitted a frank Laurent Blanc, who, as a team 28 points clear lost to one 15 behind Leicester in England, wondered if their domestic division is so weak his side were not properly prepared for the challenge. “When you don’t go through, you regret everything.”

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Strange tactics, curveballs thrown in team selection and an unsatisfactory performance: there was much to lament, even if injuries and suspensions were mitigating factors. “Ultimately we fell short across the board,” said the manager. His team ended overloaded with attackers but short of goals, a side who have struck 83 times in Ligue 1 shut out by a defence of Bacary Sagna, Nicolas Otamendi, Eliaquim Mangala and Gael Clichy.
“City surprised me tonight,” said Blanc, paying a backhanded compliment. “They were very solid.” Mangala, the erratic enigma, stood tall when it mattered most. Otamendi, the impulsive adventurer, was commitment personified. “I am very happy for both of them because they have a lot of criticism,” said Manuel Pellegrini. “If you review their complete performance over the year I think they did well.” That is a moot point but, on the night, a £200 million quintet were kept quieter than expected by a £74 million duo.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura and Javier Pastore were all on the pitch for the final half-hour, a famous five doubling up as a fruitless five. The Swede took ferocious free kicks and had a goal disallowed but mustered a solitary legitimate touch of the ball in the City penalty area. A man who forever reaches a personal glass ceiling in the knockout stages of the Champions League has come to epitomise PSG. A winner of 13 domestic league titles is surely destined never to win the continent’s most prestigious tournament. Perhaps, depending upon the identity of his next employer, he will never play in it again.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG) contre Manchester City

Image credit: AFP

Di Maria decided the 2014 final with his dynamism. There will be no sequel; not yet, anyway. PSG wanted a world-class winger last summer and opted for the Argentine instead of Kevin de Bruyne. That decision backfired eight months after City were afforded a free run at the Belgian. “A very dangerous player,” said Pellegrini. So PSG can testify. A direct sprinter directed City into the semi-finals, scoring in each leg and overshadowing Di Maria in a tie when he was the outstanding individual.
Di Maria was outshone, Yaya Toure out of the team. Eras are ending and beginning at the Etihad. The catalyst in City’s recent rise began their biggest Champions League game on the bench. Ever the diplomat, Pellegrini attributed it to the Ivorian’s lack of match sharpness but De Bruyne, eight years Toure’s junior and a man Pep Guardiola’s Bayern also explored buying last summer, is the ultimate winner in the generation game. He is now City’s most potent No. 10.
The guard changed, along with the European pecking order. After Roberto Mancini’s twin group stage failures, after Pellegrini’s back-to-back exits to Barcelona in the last 16, City have extended their adventure and expanded their ambitions. Blanc suggested they are outsiders, tourists who join the inhabitants of the latter stages. “There are always three clubs in the semi-finals and one guest club,” he said. “This year the guest club will be Manchester City.” Perhaps they will prove the uninvited guests who stayed still the end, to borrow the words of one of their more famous fans, Noel Gallagher. Can they win it? “Of course,” replied the often cautious Pellegrini.

Kevin De Bruyne celebrates scoring the first goal for Manchester City

Image credit: Reuters

He has another concrete achievement. “To leave this club without arriving to a new stage was a bad thing for me,” he said. The quiet man has a capacity to confound doom-laden predictions. Pellegrini is often subjected to unflattering comparisons with the managerial Galacticos, and he will make way for one, but not before managing in a second semi-final, a decade after Villarreal were agonisingly close to reaching the showpiece.
PSG, in contrast, have still not ventured that far since 1995. Luis Fernandez was the manager then, Blanc a successor who has still not emulated him. Domestic dominance, even with a league title secured in the first half of March, is not always enough. Inter Milan sacked Roberto Mancini, despite repeated Serie A wins, in their quest to become European champions and succeeded under Jose Mourinho, but minus Ibrahimovic.
History does not always repeat itself as City, who have gone further than ever before, can attest. Compared to PSG, City represent old money. They know that, with Guardiola arriving, a new age is beginning. Their victims departed with an air of uncertainty, with the risk a record-breaking season will be defined by this defeat. “Of course I am responsible,” said Blanc. “Ultimately the buck stops with me.”
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