On April 12th, 2016, Manchester City reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history by edging past Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg. Three years later, with Pep Guardiola looking to take his side a step further, we travel back to the highlight of City’s best European campaign to date…
It’s mid-March, and the draw has just taken place for the quarter-finals. Everyone is on edge, hoping for the best but anticipating the worst, looking to avoid the favourites and maybe sneak a tie with one of the perceived weaker teams. In the end, City get neither. Although they’re spared (for now) the terrifying trio of Spanish giants as well as Bayern Munich, fellow quarter-finalists Wolfsburg and Benfica slip out of their grasp. City end up with Paris Saint-Germain, the Champions of France, who were then managed by Laurent Blanc. It’s a tough draw, but there’s a feeling in Manchester that the Parisian side can be overcome.
Fast-forward to April 6th, in the French capital, where Manuel Pellegrini is preparing his players to take on Ibrahimovic and co. on foreign soil. In fact, the Chilean will go with the same formation and starting XI in both legs. It’s a system that has worked well for the Blues in Europe this season, and it will prove worthy once again here: Hart; Sagna, Otamendi, Mangala, Clichy; Fernando, Fernandinho; Navas, De Bruyne, Silva; Aguero.
Tactically, there are a few things to pick out here. The two-man midfield had been a staple of Pellegrini’s teams throughout the campaign, but usually it was Yaya Touré who partnered his signing Fernandinho. That night, the Brazilian will be fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with his compatriot and close friend, Fernando Reges. Another interesting point is the deployment of David Silva as a wide playmaker. In years to come, Pep Guardiola will rarely dream of using Silva on the wing and fans will largely forget that this was commonplace under their last manager. Raheem Sterling, by the way, isn’t even on the bench for either leg thanks to injury. His place in City history seems far from likely in the Spring of 2016.
In the event, the game is hard-fought. The first talking point comes when Joe Hart saves Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s penalty, sparing the blushes of Bacary Sagna, who had tripped David Luiz moments earlier. Despite PSG’s dominance in possession, their visitors take the lead in the first half, with Kevin de Bruyne finishing well at the end of a vicious counter-attack. The away end erupts, but Pellegrini is still worried. His team haven’t been able to exert the kind of control they’re used to and this doesn’t bode well for their defensive chances. A few minutes later, disaster arrives. Fernando dithers on a pass from Hart, allowing Ibrahimovic to poke the ball into an unguarded net. For City to throw away a hard-earned lead so carelessly is the worst thing that could have happened. Half-time, suddenly, can’t come soon enough.
After the break, though, PSG continue to tighten the vice. Even though they only manage five shots all game, Ibrahimovic is a constant threat, supported by the prodigious midfielder Blaise Matuidi and the threat of Edinson Cavani. Despite this, it’s a young Adrien Rabiot who gives PSG their first lead of the tie, following in a rebound from Hart’s save. City still have an away goal, but they need one more in order to bring the advantage back to Manchester. Twenty minutes from time, they get it. It’s a fluke of a goal but there’s something very fitting about the fact that Fernandinho got it, scuffing a shot past a helpless Kevin Trapp via a deflection. The game finishes 2-2, meaning PSG will probably need to keep a clean sheet in Manchester to go through.
The next Tuesday, just six days later, the two teams line up once again – this time at the Etihad. Pellegrini’s starting XI is identical, even if this time Martin Demichelis replaces Touré on the bench. PSG have bought in Gregory Van der Wiel and Marquinhos for David Luiz and Matuidi, but it makes very little difference.
What follows is one of the most memorable performances of Pellegrini’s entire tenure. Despite dominating statistically once again, the visitors offer very little notable threat. Fernandinho and Fernando perform brilliantly, taking the plaudits with a battling display that leaves the French giants almost powerless. However, the night belongs to the Belgian Kevin de Bruyne, who raises the roof by curling an effort in from outside the box late on. In the end, it’s not technically a winner, but it seals the deal nonetheless.
City’s manager is keen, as ever, to deflect attention away from himself. “I came to City because I had good performances in Europe, so to leave this club without taking them to a new state would have been a bad thing for me,” Pellegrini declares after the match, which will see City face Real Madrid in the semi-final. Equally importantly, it’s a huge breakthrough moment for Kevin de Bruyne, who had been quietly brewing into a world-class player for the majority of the season. More than anything, though, it’s a key moment in the history of the club.
This first semi-final, while by no means as important as winning the actual competition, was an announcement to the footballing world that City had arrived among the elite. Their presence alongside eventual finalists Real and Atletico, the Madrid rivals, sent a statement of intent – that it would not be their last appearance in the final four, that they were here to stay, and everyone else would have to get used to it.
With Pep Guardiola having effectively rested Kevin De Bruyne in the first leg of this year’s quarter-final against Tottenham Hotspur, you can’t help but think something similar to that famous night in 2016 could be on the cards…
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