It may be that history comes to look back on the past few days as a turning point in the history of European football, as the Super League, a desperate gamble by the impoverished traditional elite, was crushed and the petro-clubs, having challenged for so long, finally took charge. And in a great time of crisis, of such flux that unlikely alliances have been forged and the quest for at least some good guys in football ownership – anybody, anywhere – landed upon some spectacularly implausible candidates, there is something deeply reassuring that some constants remain: deep down, Paris Saint-Germain still have the personality of Violet Elizabeth Bott.
It had all been going so well. They’d beaten Bayern Munich with two performances of great discipline, especially at home. And they had much the better of the first half against Manchester City on Wednesday. As Pep Guardiola sat his full-backs deeper than usual – an element of caution that, yet again in a major European tie, did more to disrupt his own side than the opposition – PSG looked quicker, brighter and sharper.
Neymar was a constant threat. Ángel Di María, forever undervalued, foraged and connected and kept slinging in almost undefendable set-pieces. Idrissa Gana Gueye was imperious at the back of midfield. While there were a couple of warning signs when City did press – notably the chance Phil Foden drove straight at Keylor Navas – PSG probably should have been more than one up at half-time. Mauricio Pochettino, it was possible to believe, had found a way to position the abundant talent PSG possess in forward areas within a tactical and emotional ethos that allowed them to defend in numbers.
And then Guardiola released his full-backs. City began to control possession. The second half became the game that had been widely expected: City probing, PSG sitting deep and looking to counter. It’s a dynamic that has not often suited Guardiola sides against the elite in Europe, but City this season press well enough that opponents have consistently struggled to play through, over or round them. Slowly, PSG were suffocated.
Jürgen Klopp insists that to bunker down against City is to rely on luck, to hope to win the lottery. Give an opponent, particularly one of such quality, the ball around the box and eventually something is likely to happen. Perhaps a winger dribbles past two defenders. Perhaps a long-range effort flashes in. Perhaps a perfect cross picks out a teammate even in a crowded box. Or perhaps it doesn’t, and the cross just keeps going and going and drifts in at the far post. Misfortune, yes, but a misfortune that was permitted by circumstances in which PSG were complicit.
But setbacks happen; what matters is how you deal with them. For the past decade, Guardiola sides have been dogged by the sense that, once the sophisticated mechanisms malfunction, everything tends to go spectacularly awry. Score one against them, and elite opponents (including Leicester) have often quickly scored a second or even a third. It is a sign of City’s maturity this season that, under pressure in the first half, with a game plan that wasn’t quite working, they did not go to pieces, but were able to get to half-time only one down and readjust.
PSG have no such maturity. That should have been evident from their behaviour late in their league defeat to Lille at the beginning of the month. But still, the level to which they lost collective discipline was startling. City’s second goal resulted from a collective meltdown, a team used to getting its own way unable to handle adversity.
Gueye had no need to foul Foden. Leandro Paredes stupidly kicked the ball away to be booked. And then, even worse, he and Presnel Kimpembe split in the wall, allowing Riyad Mahrez’s free-kick to pass between them. Yes, Mahrez was fortunate that what was not a particularly good strike happened to hit the hole in the wall. But then, if there hadn’t been a hole in the wall, it couldn’t have been a goal.
It’s extraordinary that in the modern Champions League, in which everything is monitored and mapped, when it’s become commonplace to have a player lie behind the wall to combat low shots, both Juventus and PSG have conceded vital goals because extremely well-remunerated players have committed what every Sunday League player, every school footballer, knows is the greatest sin of cowardice imaginable: they turned their backs. Having a draught excluder is pointless if one of the panels in the door itself is missing.
By then the tantrum was in full swing. Neymar, who was sent off in that game against Lille, was booked for a late challenge and then Gueye got an inevitable red for an awful foul on Ilkay Gündogan. After almost every challenge, PSG surrounded the referee Felix Brych, threatening to scream and scream until they were sick if he didn’t even up the numbers. It was all very unedifying.
Perhaps PSG will come back at the Etihad: they certainly have the attacking power to do so, and City are more than capable of freezing in a big European tie. But if they are to win – and the last manager to overturn a first-leg Champions League deficit in the away leg was Pochettino – they will need a lot more mental fortitude than this. Football has few defences left against the distorting power of money, but the way over-successful sides so often lapse into spoiled entitlement is one of them.