Behold Pep’s underthinking Manchester City masterclass

Date published: Wednesday 28th April 2021 10:26 - Matthew Stead

Pep Guardiola

Manchester City rode another first-half Champions League wave away from home to emerge victorious. Pep Guardiola should be awful proud.


After 63 minutes of breathless and breathtaking football, Kevin de Bruyne launched a counter-attack with a crisp pass to Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese had no teammate ahead of him to continue the move so elected to use Riyad Mahrez, five yards or so to his right. At that precise moment Kyle Walker burst into view with the most brazen opposition to the concept of nominative determinism possible, his gallop behind the defence finally breaking Paris Saint-Germain’s resolve.

Manchester City did not score directly from that move; their equaliser was the result of the subsequent short corner in peculiar circumstances. But that moment from Walker was symbolic, the point at which the dam finally burst and momentum imperceptibly and irreversibly shifted. Quite how he mustered the energy after defending for an hour against Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Angel di Maria is a mystery but this seminal victory could be traced back to that most basic of actions: an overlapping run in a Champions League semi-final of the utmost quality.

It had been coming. Manchester City were as excellent in the second half as Paris Saint-Germain had been in the first. The difference was that the former maintained their focus and adjusted while the latter lost their heads and failed to react appropriately.

The individual brilliance of Paris Saint-Germain was undermined by individual mistakes. The front three were sensational, along with Marco Verratti and goalscorer Marquinhos. But Keylor Navas was completely static for Kevin de Bruyne’s fortunate leveller and the questionable wall that Mahrez curled his clinching free-kick through was a suitable metaphor for their resistance. Manchester City picked them apart brick by brick, press by press, pass by pass.

By the time Idrissa Gueye was sent off for a stamp on Ilkay Gundogan’s ankle, the mental and physical battle had already been lost for the hosts. Their complaints that De Bruyne’s similar challenge on Danilo a few minutes later was not met with the same punishment were justified, although Felix Brych seemed reluctant to award the visitors a single free-kick in the first 45 minutes and if Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are allowed to put in completely contrasting performances either side of half-time then perhaps the referee felt compelled to join in.

Pep Guardiola should savour this over the next week. In consecutive Champions League knockout games his team have recovered from a goal down at half-time in decisive and determined fashion away from home. Paris Saint-Germain had nine shots in the first half and one – an off-target Di Maria effort – in the second. John Stones and Ruben Dias gave them a sturdy platform from which to steadily build.

If anything – and after everything – the manager underthought this. The line-up was sensible enough. The approach was typical for a knockout game despite the early scares. There was no striker on the pitch to convert any crosses, so De Bruyne simply floated one straight down the corridor of uncertainty and past Navas. Oleksandar Zinchenko, substituted on for Joao Cancelo three minutes prior, will be credited with the assist.

The Mahrez free-kick was a bonus for a side and manager that had undeniably earned it. Walker was unsurprisingly one of the first to dart away in celebration. He and his teammates will know that this is a marathon and not a sprint, but Manchester City have a crucial headstart on Tuesday at the Etihad.

Kyle Walker

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