City against Paris Saint-Germain: A battle for super-club legitimacy
Paris Saint-Germain and City are two clubs who have effectively tried to ‘buy the rights’ to a semi-final place and their Champions League tie represents a pretty decent barometer of who has got the best value for money, writes Miguel Delaney.
Paris Saint-Germain's French head coach Laurent Blanc gestures during a press conference at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on April 5, 2016, on the eve of the team's UEFA Champions League football match against Manchester City
Laurent Blanc was getting a little irritated with the line of questioning, so sought to divert it ahead of Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League quarter-final with Manchester City, he was asked about the difference in competitiveness between the two teams’ domestic leagues.
“I am bit bored with questions about intensity,” Blanc began. “The English league is more competitive but that does not give their teams a right to be in the last four.”
It was a revealing way of phrasing it, and one that takes on deeper dimensions because of the very distinctive nature of this tie. PSG and City are two clubs who have effectively tried to ‘buy the rights’ to a semi-final place more than any other club in the game. Reaching that stage represents the type of super-club legitimacy they crave, and is what they have spent hundreds of millions in pursuit of. The capricious nature of knock-out football means no club can ever hope to so assertively target the Champions League trophy in the way they do a domestic title, but regular last-four places have become something of a signpost for the elite.
That has been underlined by the overwhelming dominance of the stage by three clubs - or, “the ogres of European football”, as Blanc put it - with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid occupying 16 of the last 24 places. In fact, when pointedly praising Pep Guardiola’s record at the German club, chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge expressly highlighted the fact that he had taken them to that level, to being frequent semi-finalists.
Neither PSG nor City have the historic grandiosity of those three clubs but they do have more in common with each other - in terms of recent profile and ownership - than anyone else on the planet.
That is also what makes their meeting at this point of the competition, at this point of their recent histories, so compelling and symbolic.
Blanc attempted to play down any Gulf rivalry, given that PSG’s owners are Qatari and City’s are from Abu Dhabi, saying “it is not a challenge” between the regimes. Except, in so many ways, it is.
It is an effective play-off between the newly big spenders to get to join the historic big clubs. It is a bout between very similar projects, and almost a test on who has made the most progress, as well as the first big return on their investment since the landmark first league titles under new money.
Blanc admitted that. “City have a great project there, too, it’s similar to Paris.”
It could also come down to who has spent their money better - or, rather, who has had the best value for money.
That is difficult to say given the differences in context, but does make for an interesting argument.
City were taken over in 2008, two and a half years before PSG’s March 2011 takeover but, because of the nature of the Premier League and the way it was dominated by that year’s Champions League finalists in Manchester United and Chelsea, they had to work much harder and spend much more gradually in order to get to the same heights. Compare the first signings in the first full windows under the new regimes.
After the initial excitement over Robinho on the 2008 summer deadline the day, the winter brought Craig Bellamy, Shay Given, Wayne Bridge and Nigel De Jong - all respectable rather than rousing. PSG were immediately able to go more lavish in the summer of 2011, bringing in the then highly-rated Javier Pastore, as well as Thiago Motta. That was also the same summer City were finally able to move onto a different level of signing in Sergio Aguero and it is probably fair to say that, since then, their trajectories have been rather similar.
Manchester City's Robinho gestures during their UEFA Cup soccer match against Omonia Nicosia at Eastlands stadium in Manchester October 2, 2008
Image credit: Reuters
Given the nature of the competitions and the opposition, City’s haul of two Premier Leagues is probably the equivalent - or maybe even worth slightly more - than PSG’s four successive French titles.
The big difference has been in Europe, but that also perhaps speaks to something different in their make-ups. City have been on a long Champions League learning curve, with this season marking the first time they have even reached the quarter-finals - let alone the last four.
PSG immediately got to the quarter-finals on returning to the competition in 2012-13, however, and have never been knocked out before then. So, this almost represents a more natural evolution for them, and reflects something about the teams.
The French side are really in the middle of a cycle right now, whereas City’s is coming to an end of one, even if that has been blurred by young signings like Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling.
The question is now whether the City team can blur that reality further.
It could mean this team’s last season together could bring a first big leap for the club.
Either way, one of them is going to get the return they’ve been waiting for.