The Champions League semi-final between PSG and Manchester City was presented with the appearance of an anticipated final. The most opulent teams remaining in the tournament were measured in a geopolitical duel, financed as are the clubs by monarchies of the Persian Gulf embarked on a feverish race to lift the European Cup. The poster promised a great show. The first leg, however, was settled between the tactical calculation, the set pieces, and even the intervention of the VAR to send Gueye off in the absence of ten minutes. PSG was superior in the first half and City replied in the second. De Bruyne came back with a more or less fortuitous goal – Keylor was wrong – and Mahrez nailed the 1-2 free kick through a gap in the barrier. The result opens the door for Guardiola that leads to his first Champions League final outside of Barça.
The first 45 minutes of the tie recreated Guardiola’s pyrrhic victory on the tactical board. City annulled Mbappé and he was deformed in the process. From the transformation of the entire team to protect themselves, the doubts of their players arose, and in the uncertainty came the crisis. For half an hour the visitors searched for their place on the field without finding it, because in the first place they lost control of the ball that constitutes their identity. PSG did not need Mbappé to occupy the opposite field and spill approaches and corners. At the exit of a corner kick Marquinhos headed 1-0.
The paradox of a model that demands fanatical application for its full development makes Guardiola a captive. The most gifted coach that exists to activate the 4-3-3 pump is the victim of a contradiction verified for five years in each of the crosses that have left him out of the Champions League. Greater prudence leads to greater risk. Delaying Gundogan 15 meters to help Rodri has almost always had counterproductive effects to the extent that it has detracted connections to that synapse that the team fosters at its best with De Bruyne, Foden and Bernardo Silva.
In the Parc des Princes, the operation was repeated so many times, frustrated. Gundogan was paired with Rodri at the start of play while Cancelo, selected for his physical presence, remained on the left side closing the lane. Thus Mbappé was isolated from Verratti and Paredes, and PSG failed to complete clear counterattacks. But when City got the ball back, they lost time getting into position and the pace of deliveries was never enough. “Move Rodri! Move! ”Guardiola shouted from the side, asking for passes with one or two touches. But his players, too far apart from each other, failed to hit their attempts.
There was a symptomatic play before half an hour. Gundogan crossed the midfield line and, without accompanying the play, sent the ball to Foden to face the defenders. When Foden lost the ball, Gundogan was 30 meters away, unable to put pressure on the rivals who came out and leaned on Di Maria. It was in actions as well that PSG began to dominate all the records of the match, guided by the compass of Neymar, his boatswain Verratti, and the always unpredictable Di María.
Pressed by the need to react to 1-0, Gundogan stepped forward. Shyly, but it happened at last. The move, coupled with the replacement of Cancelo by Zinchenko after the break, helped City regain their pulse. Because in 4-3-3, and that Guardiola has sublimated like no one else, those who disengage the rival defenses are the two interiors before the wingers or the striker. With Gundogan reincorporated to the offensive role, the chain added links and Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne began to intervene more encouraged by a whole squad that accompanied them to support them. Thus, from an error in the departure of Paredes, the first occasion occurred for City, when Silva left Foden alone. Keylor stopped.
Overconfident in his defense, PSG seemed to speculate backing down. He had arguments to do so but the procedure allowed the City to advance en masse to the vicinity of the Keylor area, with the danger that this entails. The 1-1 was unleashed after a corner. The play was going nowhere when De Bruyne sent a threaded cross to the far post for Stones to head. There was no pitching. There was no clearance. Keylor didn’t read the trajectory and the ball went to the box. Before the stupor of PSG, minutes later, Mahrez put the reliability of the barrier to the test in a direct free kick.
“They are football accidents,” lamented Pochettino, the local coach. “They are inexplicable details.” The City did not generate shots in clear situations. It was enough for him to regain control of the ball to destabilize an opponent who ended up stumbling to the minimum. PSG caused unnecessary fouls, Gueye’s squad hit Gundogan from behind, at the head of all. The expulsion of the midfielder, at the request of the VAR, was a blow. Without realizing it, PSG lost energy and ended up with no response. “It is difficult to understand that we have lost this game,” said Ander Herrera, on his way to the locker room. Almost as incomprehensible as Mbappé’s production, unable to make a shot throughout the game.