With the speculation swirling, Mauricio Pochettino thought he had caught a break on the field in Manchester. The Paris Saint‑Germain manager, hotly linked with the vacant post across town at United, had watched his team look vulnerable at the back and erratic all over. It was difficult to make out the gameplan. And then they led through Kylian Mbappé early in the second half. On one level, it felt like a credible pitch for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s old job.
It would have been ridiculous for Manchester City to have lost this Champions League game or even to have drawn because they were the better team for so long. It was Pep Guardiola who had the well-grooved strategy, it was he who had the better players – namely Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva – although profligacy threatened to undermine him.
City could have led decisively at half-time and yet, equally, they could have trailed, Mbappé blowing a glorious chance on 44 minutes after a John Stones error and a lightning counter. Ici, c’est Paris. Pochettino’s team can drift and flatter to deceive and then align the stars and make something happen. As they did when Mbappé found the net.
City narrowed their focus and got what they deserved. Raheem Sterling scored the equaliser and, although Neymar sliced through out of nothing to miss a glorious chance, it was Gabriel Jesus – on as a substitute – who pulled City over the line to ensure they qualified for the last 16 as group winners with a game to spare.
Jesus’s goal was the tie in microcosm – City moving through the gears, so fluent and pacy; PSG leaving gaps, unable to cope. Mahrez accepted a pass from Ilkay Gündogan and, when he crossed to the far post, Silva was in yards of space. Silva’s touch back to Jesus was coated in velvet. The finish was ice cool.
PSG had taken over the Lowry Hotel – it was packed with players’ entourages and assorted hangers‑on to offer the impression that the circus was well and truly in town – and, for Pochettino, the accommodation felt fitting. It was this hotel in which José Mourinho had stayed throughout his United tenure and there was no getting away from the story that had framed the occasion. Is Pochettino returning to manage United – either in the coming days or at the end of the season?
If Pochettino’s “three kings” were present – Mbappé, Neymar and Lionel Messi – then Guardiola’s were not. He missed the Covid-positive Kevin De Bruyne and the injured Phil Foden and Jack Grealish, with the latter’s pre-match tweet that he had four tickets he could not use getting a bit of traction.
Guardiola’s solution was to play Silva as a false nine, with Gündogan given the licence to roam from the right of the midfield three, and City dazzled for much of a enjoyable night.
Mahrez was in the mood, his touch ever silky and he nearly gave City the lead after a wonderful move on 18 minutes which he started. The pass to Gündogan, who was virtually on the byline, did not look on but Mahrez made it and got the ball back via Silva. Cutting inside, he shaped a curler past Keylor Navas only for Achraf Hakimi to head off the line.
It was PSG’s second goalline clearance, the first having come early on when Rodri got above Hakimi to meet a Mahrez free-kick. Presnel Kimpembe was in the right place to head away, with Navas beaten.
PSG measured their first-half thrills mainly in nutmegs. Messi did Sterling with one; Mbappé on Rodri was the other but there was little in terms of structured play from Pochettino’s team. And yet they nearly stole the lead before half-time when Stones took a showy and unnecessary extra touch on halfway and was robbed by Neymar, who released Mbappé. One on one with Ederson, Mbappé curled his shot high.
City were quicker and more coherent. Their press discomfited PSG and they had other fine chances before the interval – none better than the one for Gündogan on 33 minutes after slick approach work and a João Cancelo cross.
Nuno Mendes fluffed the clearance and Gündogan had the time to measure the shot. He sidefooted against the post. Oleksandr Zinchenko also had an effort blocked by Marquinhos while Navas denied Mahrez.
Pochettino has been open about the difficulty of finding a system that draws the best from his marquee trio up front. Each of them, he pointed out last week, wants to play a different way and each of them wants to be the main man. Pochettino swapped them about a bit and they wandered a bit themselves. It was a little underwhelming but perhaps it is simply a question of waiting.
They fired early in the second half, Neymar stepping over a pass inside from Nuno and Messi exchanging passes with Leandro Paredes to create the space for the cross. When he cut it back, it deflected off Kyle Walker and there was Mbappé to ram the ball underneath Ederson.
City did not panic and the equaliser came when Rodri chipped up the inside-right channel for the onrushing Walker. Nobody tracked him and when he volleyed across first time, Jesus manufactured a flick under pressure and Sterling stretched to jab home.
Jesus had extended Navas then Neymar swapped passes with the substitute Ángel Di María and sprinted clear of Rúben Dias. The finish was all wrong. Jesus would show him the way.
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