Same city, same habits. On the eve of the most important game of their season, the second leg for the Champions League semi-finals with a 2-1 deficit against Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain decided to maintain the same routine that they fulfilled the last time they crossed the English Channel and headed northwestern England.
When they played Manchester United in their Champions League group stage engagement at Old Trafford last December, they stayed overnight at the Lowry Hotel in the city center; and Marco Verratti answered the questions asked by the French television RMC the day before the meeting. The French won 3-1, in which it became a defining moment of their season. So before Tuesday’s game against City, they stayed at the Lowry again. Verratti gave interviews again.
Obviously, they will aspire to obtain the same victorious result, which would see them qualify for their second consecutive Champions League final. However, there will be one important difference: the technical director. Thomas Tuchel was fired 22 days after the triumph at the “Theater of Dreams”, but Mauricio Pochettino will have to use the same recipe to repeat the performance of the Parisians. On that night, the spirit shown by the team was magnificent. PSG controlled the ball well, created scoring chances, was lucky and also managed to get around the storm. They will have to do it again, and probably much more, if they want to seal their spot in the final.
To overcome City by a margin of two goals, or to obtain any victory with a score greater than 2-1, Pochettino (who returns to England and to a stadium where he already broke Pep Guardiola’s heart during his time at Tottenham Hotspur) will have to fine tune your tactic to the max. Verratti and Leandro Paredes will have to be strong to deal with the pressure. Ángel Di María, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar must have surgical precision and combine well. And Julian Draxler could be the surprise guest for Tuesday night. He has done well every time he has assumed title in European tournaments, including against Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
And that is where PSG has been so outstanding in the current campaign: as a visitor. During their matches at Old Trafford, the Camp Nou and the Allianz Arena, the Parisians have taken advantage of these opportunities, and the pressure they generate, to show their highest level and score important victories.
Despite this, Mbappé’s physical condition is cause for concern. The prodigious striker was not at his best in the first leg, resting for the weekend as his teammates struggled to beat Lens. The Etihad is a special stadium for the winner of the World Cup with the French team. It was there that he presented himself to the world, exactly in February 2017 and at the age of 18, wearing the AS Monaco shirt, when he destroyed City for 45 minutes in the Champions League round of 16. The forward, born and raised in Paris, is currently 22 years old and a much better footballer; However, a repetition of his performance is enough and more than enough for PSG.
Of course City is a different team from the United that PSG beat last December, and with different qualities. And certainly much more is at stake for them in this semi-final round than in any other match in the club’s history.
This squad and coaching staff could further consolidate their legend within the annals of City if they qualify for their first Champions League final. Thirteen years after the acquisition of the club by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and more than a billion dollars invested to make this club regularly competing for the most important awards, five years after the arrival of Guardiola and a Five years after falling to Real Madrid in their last (and only) appearance at this stage, they are one game away from reaching their Holy Grail: being crowned Kings of Europe.
And just days after their clash with PSG, City could be anointed as Premier League champions for the third time in the last four years.
Guardiola has been careful in his preparations for the match, stating at Monday’s press conference that “I have not said a single word about them (PSG)”, and that his squad “just has to focus on what we do.” But the pressure is certainly there, and it’s easy to imagine what the European crown would mean for the helmsman, the players, the fans and the club. And they are very close to getting it.
They have advanced smoothly in their campaign in Europe so far, with an overwhelming march in the group stage (against FC Porto, Olympiakos and Marseille), they beat a naive and inexperienced squad of Borussia Monchengladbach, they controlled Erling Haaland to eliminate with authority to the Borussia Dortmund before winning in Paris with two lucky goals, albeit with a strong reaction after the break. This return match will be very different.
Could the expectations of being so close to playing the final turn out to be difficult to handle and will they surpass them in the end? Maybe. This Tuesday, after the opening whistle, they will seek to take advantage of any opportunity to seal the overall result. But we saw them in the first half of the first leg, when there was still a lot of football to play, and the pressure overcame them, something that Guardiola himself came to admit. Could it happen again?
However, we are talking about a team with a lot of confidence, a lot of certainty. They know how to play their games and win. Last Saturday on their visit to Crystal Palace, playing with what was mostly a substitute team, they added their 32nd victory in the 35 most recent matches played in all competitions. His strength lies in mentally wearing out opponents when they have the ball, keeping it in their possession for as long as possible, and restricting options with his tireless pressure when they don’t have it. That’s what they did in Paris for the final 45 minutes. They forced PSG to make mistakes, they did not allow them to play from behind and make the ball reach the feet of Neymar or Mbappé.
The way City managed to hold off the prodigious Frenchman was impressive. For the first time in his career, he did not attempt shots in a Champions League match. However, he will try again this Tuesday, against Guardiola, against Kevin De Bruyne, against the rest of the City squad. Against the odds. Or, as Neymar said: “with 1% probability, but with 99% faith.”