June 15, 2021

Riyad Mahrez drives a stake through PSG’s heart on Manchester City’s greatest Champions League night

After the resilience came the brilliance as Manchester City, on their greatest night in the Champions League, mounted a thrilling comeback against Paris Saint-Germain and took a significant step towards their first final.

No one will write off PSG, with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria, in next week’s second leg in Manchester but this was a performance that showed just how far City have come during this campaign.

Having been utterly dominated by PSG, having been made to look ordinary at times, they struck back with an outstanding second-half performance to claim the win with the French champions even reduced to 10-men as their frustrations spilled over.

It was summed up by Riyad Mahrez who was tackling back in his own penalty area in the first period to deny Neymar and then scored the vital winning goal from a free-kick.

Remarkably it is now 18 successive away wins in all competitions for City but this was by far the most impressive. Last season they would have folded under the intense pressure they faced from PSG but instead remained patient, held on and regrouped before passing their opponents off the pitch. It was quite extraordinary with Neymar simply starved off the ball.

Even an empty stadium could not silence the crackle of anticipation for this one and the ‘big’ players looked up for it: Neymar, Mbappe, De Bruyne – but it was a player who always seems to make his mark on the grandest occasions who struck.

The goal meant that Marquinhos, the fit-again PSG captain, has now scored in the quarter-final and semi-final in each of the past two campaigns and it followed a sharp spell of pressure.

Corners were won and Di Maria’s delivery was excellent as he whipped the ball into the near post with Marquinhos allowed to run and meet it, away from Rodri, away from Ilkay Gundogan to beat Joao Cancelo to a header and glance the ball across goal and into the net.

What a blow for City. PSG had already set traps, countering quickly with Neymar getting two shots away and with the second owing everything to his quick feet as he combined with Marco Verratti to force Ederson into tipping his rising shot over.

PSG’s set-pieces were precise. From the other flank Neymar delivered with Leandro Parades rising, again at the near post, to send his header narrowly wide. City needed to get a grip and in theirs – and Guardiola’s – biggest European night for five years they were already up against it with Cancelo panicking and bringing down Mbappe as he threatened to run from deep.

There was danger everywhere and City finally threatened when Cancelo picked out Bernardo Silva with an angled cross from deep on the left which Silva met at full stretch to steer it goalwards with Keylor Navas alert in turning it away for a corner at his near post.

If the goalkeeper did well there then he was at fault as he gave the ball away with Phil Foden crossing deep, Riyad Mahrez heading it goalwards – and just as Bernardo appeared set to finish Parades hooked it away.

By now it was incredibly open, incredibly quick, incredibly high quality with Foden and John Stones charging down shots and Di Maria dribbling through only to over-hit a pass to Mbappe. PSG threatened again with Alessandro Florenzi breaking into the City area and appearing to set up Neymar from close-range only for Mahrez – of all people – to run back and toe end it away.

City were being stretched but were working hard, were digging deep and finally had their chance. PSG lost the ball once more as they tried to play out and Bernardo squared it across the area. Suddenly Foden was free, unmarked and just had Navas to beat as Idrissa Gueye dived in – only to drive the ball high and straight at the goalkeeper who beat it away. Surely Foden had to score.

It was a game where City looked like they were suffering for not playing with a striker. The system has served them well but they had been unable to stretch PSG and as De Bruyne shaped to cross he delayed, allowing it to be blocked, because there was no City player in the area.

Neymar re-emerged with heavy strapping around his left elbow after he landed heavily in the first-half with it appearing to hamper PSG who were finally pinned back as City pressed them high up the pitch.

But PSG broke out. Neymar instigated it with Mbappe then running at Stones, checking back, and again, before crossing with Verratti only just failing to get his studs on it to turn the ball home inside the six-yard area. That was another warning for City and they delivered one of their own when Presnel Kimpembe’s clearing header dropped to De Bruyne who scissor-kicked it just over the bar.

If he was unfortunate in that moment, then the captain was fortunate as he drew City level. His inswinging cross from the left was dangerous but, still, Navas should have collected it as Stones ran in. Instead he stayed and the ball curled inside the far post to ripple the net.

Navas lay on his back, his arms over his head, staring into the sky. He knew. And the goalkeeper was soon furious again as he was beaten once more. Foden was fouled and De Bruyne stood over the free-kick. He looked certain to take it but, instead, it was Mahrez who stepped up to squeeze his shot between a gap in the wall as Paredes and Kimpembe foolishly turned to beat Navas to his right.

PSG’s frustration grew with Neymar catching Ruben Dias, kicking him in his shin, and being booked. There was soon another card for PSG and it was a red with Gueye dismissed for a horrible lunge on Gundogan.

Could City capitalise? Could they even kill the tie? Foden slalomed through but again could not quite find the finish. City are favourites and perhaps en route to an all-English final after Chelsea’s 1-1 away draw with Real Madrid.

 

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