- Man City recover from early second-half setback to take deserved victory
- Sterling scores his 23rd Champions League goal while Gabriel Jesus steps off bench for winner
- Messi, Neymar and Mbappe combine for goal but Mauricio Pochettino’s PSG once again look like a disjointed side
Manchester City complete 2-1 statement comeback victory over PSG on Wednesday night to top Champions League group.
We came to marvel at whether the brilliant individuality of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar would prevail and again left praising the beautiful synchronicity of Manchester City’s football.
The “three kings” of PSG had their moments – Mbappe scored and somehow Neymar failed to – but it is City who have won this Champions League group.
With RB Leipzig hammering Club Brugge this was all about who would finish first, as both clubs are now through to the last-16, and at one stage it looked like Mauricio Pochettino would be doing that and claiming a famous double over Pep Guardiola as PSG took the lead.
Whether Pochettino is still at PSG when the knock-out phases of this competition resume in February remains to be seen given his eagerness to return to Manchester, albeit in charge of Manchester United, although the likelihood is he will have to wait until the end of the season. That is if United ultimately want him.
Winning here would have helped persuade them but, instead, PSG once again look like a disjointed side relying more on individual talent while City have that but also the kind of glorious combinations that the best football teams can achieve.
City went at PSG as if to make a statement. They hogged the ball, they pushed them back and they almost took an early lead when Rodri met a free-kick only for his header to be cleared off the line by Presnel Kimpembe. Still the ball dropped to Riyad Mahrez who, from a tight angle, forced a star-fish save from Keylor Navas at his near post.
It provoked a response. There was a showy flick from Neymar and then a complaint from the Brazilian to the referee, pointing at his thigh, believing he had been caught late. Now it was time for PSG to keep-ball and Neymar should have done better when Messi switched play to release Nuno Mendes who picked him out. His shot was scuffed.
Back came City. There was an interchange between Bernardo Silva and Mahrez with the latter cutting inside and curling a shot which appeared set to be Navas but was headed over by the back-tracking Achraf Hakimi.
It was not so much end-to-end as long tracts of possession claimed by either side even if City clearly had the edge with Marquinhos intercepting decisively to block a goal-bound shot from Oleksandr Zinchenko who had been pushed into midfield. That made it three crucial interventions from PSG’s over-worked defenders.
And so it provoked another response with PSG smartly playing their way through City’s press and, soon after, Mendes evading Kyle Walker only for his shot, also, to lack power.
City raised the pace even further.
Firstly Ilkay Gundogan struck the outside of the post, although had he scored it would have been ruled out for a pull by Raheem Sterling on Ander Herrera, and then Navas was forced into a sprawling save down his left from Mahrez.
It was block after block from PSG, defending deep now as they had done in the previous game, with the pressure going. The ball was coming back at them more and more quickly, like a quickening carousel, with their three attackers – Messi, Neymar and Mbappe – reduced to onlookers. Finally Hakimi and Marquinhos snapped and turned to them, demanding they get back and help out. Messi, at least, trotted over. In fairness Mbappe was providing a threat.
Remarkably, though, it should have been PSG who went in front just before half-time with John Stones at fault as he dithered on half-way, trying to bring the ball under control only for Neymar to steal it away from him and quickly release Mbappe. Instead of taking it in his stride and going for goal he waited and tried to arc a shot high beyond Ederson. Instead it cleared the cross-bar. On the touchline Pochettino was increasingly agitated.
Soon after and Mbappe made no mistake. Messi made it. He started the move and as the pace quicked there was a one-two with Herrera and a fine dummy by Neymar with Messi suddenly in the City area and cutting the ball back across goal. It flicked off Walker and ran to Mbappe who steadied himself and drove his shot low between Ederson’s legs and into the net. The triumvirate, open to criticism until that point, had emphatically shown the difference they can make and PSG were in front.
City were thrown. They had largely dominated but were behind and twice PSG attacked and twice City were fortunate that the final ball was poor otherwise they could have been undone with. But they rallied and they drew level with Rodri sumptuously picking out Walker who acrobatically volleyed the ball back across goal. Substitute Gabriel Jesus challenged, it fell to Sterling and he stabbed it home at full-stretch off the post.
It was Sterling’s third goal in three games which, given how he has appeared to be pushed to the margins, felt like another small victory in his return. It was also Sterling’s 23rd goal in this competition with only two English players – Paul Scholes (24) and Wayne Rooney (30) – having scored more. And both of them have retired.
PSG should have restored their lead. Once more Messi was involved but it was Neymar who made the chance and should have converted it as he deftly controlled substitute Angel Di Maria’s awkward pass back to him, beat Ruben Dias to the ball and with only Ederson in front of him somehow side-footed wide. He looked on in disbelief.
It proved costly. City countered with Mahrez crossing deep, beyond the far post where Bernardo cushioned the ball into the path of Jesus who steered it beyond Navas. And so City were, finally and deservedly, in front as they saw out the win.