Playing on a pitch dusted with an ominous layer of ice, Manchester City finally ended their Champions League hoodoo, besting Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 to reach their first ever final.
In truth, the feat was long overdue. Bringing Pep Guardiola to Manchester was supposed to be the final ingredient in turning the club into a European superpower. However, since his arrival, one of the best coaches of all time has often proved more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to the latter stages of the competition.
His tinkering and overthinking over the past four seasons have consistently contributed to City’s early exits. Nowhere was this more evident than last campaign when Guardiola’s surprise switch to a back three was followed by a much more surprising 3-1 defeat to Lyon.
Aside from Guardiola’s tactical tweaks, another problem for City in Europe has been their fragile mentality. In 2017, they entered a round of 16 second leg against Monaco with a 5-3 lead and blew it, losing 3-1 in France. Their failure to get a handle on a chaotic quarter-final matchup with Tottenham in 2019 was similarly indicative of their brittle psychology.
This campaign, they have shown clear signs that the flaky City of seasons past has found its mettle. In the quarter-finals against Borussia Dortmund, they were seriously tested in both legs. Yet, they stood up to the task and progressed comfortably in the end.
It was a similar story against PSG. After suffering their fair share of scary moments in the opening exchanges of the first leg, they rallied after break and put in one of their best 45 minutes performances of the Guardiola era, securing a 2-1 win in the process.
As impressive as this was, City saved the most striking evidence of their renewed mentality for the return leg. It took them just 11 minutes to open the scoring through Riyad Mahrez, and thereafter they barely gave PSG an inch.
Their ability to deprive their opponents space to operate was extraordinary. Keeping their shape to the millimetre, they hunted in packs like wolves that hadn’t eaten for weeks. Neymar, one of the world’s best, was forced to come deeper and narrower to get the ball with each passing minute, while Mauro Icardi could have set up a camping chair, such was his limited involvement.
On the rare occasions that PSG did manage to slip through, City’s back four were as stoic as they have ever been. Just before the hour mark John Stones and Oleksandr Zinchenko celebrated a blocked Neymar strike like they’d just found £1,000 down the back of the sofa, while Kyle Walker put in one of his best ever defensive displays.
The real star of the show, though, was Ruben Dias. A lot was made of the transformative effect that Virgil van Dijk had on Liverpool a few years back, but Dias’ influence has been no less incredible. Here, he looked like the archetypal modern centre-back: mobile, composed and intelligent, finishing the game with a team-high three blocks and 90% passing accuracy.
With such solid foundations to build upon, it was no surprise when Mahrez – who must now be considered a ‘big-game player’ and not solely an entertainer – added a second goal to all but assure City’s progression. While PSG imploded, turning to petulant children around them, Guardiola’s charges largely kept their cool and saw the game out without any problems.
It’s been more than a decade in the making, but City are finally in a Champions League final. To make up for lost time and failed investment, they must now win it – and after finding a new, ruthless mentality, they most likely will.