Manchester City 1 Paris Saint-Germain 0, Man City win 3-2 on aggregate: Manchester City have finally learned to love the Champions League after Kevin De Bruyne sent them into the semi-finals on a heady night at the Etihad.
De Bruyne’s beautifully-taken 76th strike against Paris St Germain gave Manuel Pellegrini’s side a 3-2 aggregate victory in the quarter-final tie and left the rest of football wondering just where the club can go next.
Considering City’s plans for world domination since being taken over by Sheikh Mansour in 2008 — they already have sister clubs in Australia, the United States, and Japan as well as a finance deal with China — the Champions League was always going to be the next step in taking their brand onto a global stage.
The only problem was, until now, that fans, disillusioned by poor performances in the competition and by a perception that their club has been poorly treated by Uefa (not least in the way it imposed a punishment for breaking Financial Fair Play rules), didn’t seem to share the vision.
Oh, how that is changing now after an electric night in Manchester that left everyone inside a record crowd of 53,039 almost breathless with the emotion and excitement of it all.
“It feels great,” De Bruyne said as the realisation began to seep in that his team had made history. “We played a good game and PSG didn’t create much, I think we deserved to go through. We are in the semi-finals now and anything can happen.”
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. The intricacies of Uefa’s coefficient system, so heavily-weighted in favour of Europe’s big guns that City barely registered even when they were Premier League champions, left the club facing a group from every hell in previous campaigns. So much so that until this season they had never even reached a quarter-final.
Add in a bizarre decision by Uefa to charge the club when fans booed the Champions League anthem — plus an edict to play a game in Moscow behind closed doors — and you can see why City and the European Cup have hardly been happy bedfellows.
Success, however, has the power to change all that. Having held PSG to a 2-2 draw in the first leg of this last-eight tie, City fans rose to the occasion. They still booed the Champions League anthem – louder than ever — but made a thunderous noise after that in a bid to catapult their side to the semi-finals for the first time; and incredibly, they did it.
The opening stages were played in a cacophony of noise as Joe Hart tipped a Zlatan Ibrahmovic free-kick over the bar and Sergio Aguero twice went close to opening the scoring. But the moment when City supporters feared that Europe really was against them came when Aguero was brought down by PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp after 29 minutes. The Argentinian had already rounded his man and was ready to pull the trigger — and yet Spanish referee Carlos Valesco Carballo opted not to show a red card. To make matters worse, Aguero then rolled a miserable penalty wide of the post.
A sense of injustice, mixed in with resigned inevitability, swept around the packed Etihad and weighed heavy in the air for a minute or two. Perhaps that once-heard phrase ‘Typical City’, buried for so long, rushed up from nowhere to strangle the cheers of the home fans as they took in just how important that miss could be.
The moment of doubt didn’t last long, however. It soon gave way to boos for the referee at half-time and thunderous noise in the second half as Hart parried away another Ibrahimovic free-kick and City continued to dream.
Playing without Yaya Toure, fit enough for the bench but not for the starting line-up on his return from a knee injury, they enjoyed less possession than their opponents but grew in confidence with Aguero and De Bruyne a constant problem for the PSG defence as the visitors becoming increasingly erratic.
A disallowed goal, correctly called offside, did little to help the Frenchmen’s mood as they struggled to create clear-cut chances from open play and found City’s defensive partnership of Ellaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi surprisingly difficult to crack.
By the time the 70th minute arrived there was a growing perception that City were in fact shading the tie; and then, in quite stunning style, De Bruyne proved the point.
City had enjoyed a long and patient period of possession in and around the PSG box, turning down several opportunities to shoot, when the Belgian suddenly took one, sweetly sweeping home from outside the area. The roof on the Eithad, where once the Champions League was almost a swear word, shook with the sheer force of the noise beneath it; and suddenly City, the club that needed to beat Gillingham in a League One play-off in 2001, had arrived with a bang on the world stage.
Where they go now will be fascinating to watch. But with the blue genie finally out of the bottle, it really could be anywhere, and if City fans needed re-assuring that things really are changing then another disallowed goal — again for offside — and a fine save by Hart from Edison Cavani persuaded them that the European jinx is over.
“They are a good team, not a particularly spectacular team, but they are efficient and they get the job done,” said PSG boss Laurent Blanc afterwards.
And City aren’t planning to stop here. “It was an amazing night for us,” said Hart. “We have worked hard in this competition. We struggled to start with but we have started to compete. Now we can take the next step.”
The Sky Blue love affair with the Champions League has finally begun — and it could be a long one.
Hart, Sagna, Otamendi, Mangala, Clichy, Fernando, Fernandinho, Navas, De Bruyne (Toure 84) Silva (Delph 87), Aguero (Iheanacho 90).
Caballero, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Bony.
Trapp, Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Thiago Motta, Cavani, Ibrahimovic, Di Maria, Maxwell, Aurier (Pastore 61), Van der Wiel, Rabiot.
Sirigu, Kimpembe, Stambouli, Kurzawa, Ongenda.
Carlos Valesco Carballo (Spain)
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