For a club that has spent almost £1 billion on players alone since taking over the club eight years ago, Manchester City’s season has hardly been a resounding success. Yet results over the past week mean they could yet enter the Pep Guardiola era at the Etihad on a real high.
City have long since faded out of the running for the title, having embarked on a horrid run of form since the long-staring rumors that Guardiola would replace Manuel Pellegrini as manager next season were made official. Suddenly, even attaining a Champions League was thrown into jeopardy. As for their performance in the competition this campaign, they had gone further than ever before in reaching the quarterfinals, but a true breakthrough into Europe’s elite was rendered a tough ask. As well as being drawn against a Paris Saint-Germain side that had already romped to the Ligue 1 title, they went into the first leg missing captain Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure.
Yet City greatly exceeded expectations in Paris, pitting in an impressive away showing at the Parc des Princes that saw them take the lead through the fit again Kevin de Bruyne. Even after a calamitous error by Fernando that let in Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score and some sloppy defending that allowed Adrien Rabiot to put PSG in front, City were able to walk away with a draw and two precious away goals thanks to Fernandinho’s strike.
Boosted by their performance in the French capital, Manchester City came from behind to beat West Brom on Saturday. It was a result that, along with dropped points for their rivals, puts the club firmly back in the driving seat for a top-four berth. They should enter Tuesday’s return leg with PSG with confidence, particularly with Toure fit again, David Silva expected to shake off a knock and even Kompany a potential inclusion.
It is now to PSG that the pressure has switched. While they have locked up a fourth successive Ligue 1 title, such is their financial advantage in France that finishing top of the pile is almost taken as a given. Nobody in Paris has any doubt that it is in the Champions League where the club now needs to make their mark.
Three straight quarterfinal exits have brought frustration, but also experience and an understanding that they had been beaten by elite European operators in Chelsea and, on two occasions, Barcelona. An exit to a Manchester City side that had never before made it past the last 16 and finds itself in the similar place as PSG in looking to make a true mark in Europe would not be viewed nearly as favorably.
And, despite his domestic success, questions would surely be raised about whether Laurent Blanc, who was far from the first choice when appointed three years ago, is of the caliber required to take he club to the next level.
The first leg also promoted questions over whether PSG’s dominance in France made it more difficult to rise to the challenge when coming up against tougher opposition in Europe. Certainly Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City warmed up for their return meeting in very different manners.
While City were made to work for a precious three points, PSG made nine changes to their side for what still ended up being a routine 2-0 win at Guingamp. The focus has long been on the Champions League.
But if PSG are to get the win or a high-scoring draw they require at the Etihad, they will have to do it without defender David Luiz and midfielder Blaise Matuidi after both picked up bookings in the first leg. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Kevin Trapp is now a doubt having been forced off at halftime against Guingamp following a collision with teammate Layvin Kurzawa. Blanc is, though, reportedly considering the gamble of returning Marco Verratti to the side despite the Italian midfielder not having played since February because of a groin injury.
Prediction: PSG have form for coming to England and getting the needed result, having done so against Chelsea in the Round of 16 this season and at the same stage a year ago. But this is their most perilous position yet. This time, Fernandinho’s goal last week makes their task far tougher. A PSG side fully firing certainly has the quality to expose a Manchester City defense that remains far from convincing. But too often PSG fail to raise their level in the biggest games. If that happens again then City will be able to squeeze through to the final four.
Predicted score: Manchester City 1-1 Paris Saint-Germain (City progress on away goals)