SRINIVAS SADHANAND | 29th April 2021

31st December, 2020- Manchester City were 8th in the Premier League. Matters on the pitch were as predictably drab as a loveless marriage. It was insipid and uninspiring to watch. And after the start to a campaign where pre-season was a myth, Pep Guardiola lost his mother to the dreaded COVID-19 virus and Sergio Aguero was doing everything but being able to stay fit, City’s season was headed south.

On 29th April 2021, you could jump on the “How it started vs How it’s going” trend that’s taken over social media. City have one hand on the Premier League title and they don’t plan to drop it like Oleks Zinchenko; a 4th successive and well, inevitable Carabao Cup triumph and of course, beating Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes in the first-leg of the Champions League semi-final. It’s easy to be a prisoner of the moment and shrug City’s supremacy as just “the usual” when in fact, they’ve had to look within themselves, fight and make their own luck.

And especially in the Champions League. If Marco Reus’ late equalizer wasn’t enough of a blow, Phil Foden’s late winner proved this City outfit always fight till the end. If Jude Bellingham’s scorcher made you think the Citizens were back at their self-sabotaging selves in the Champions League, an emphatic Riyad Mahrez penalty and Manchester City’s golden boy doing the business yet again proved this team was made of sterner stuff.

A 45 mins that spelt danger

Squaring off against the Parisians at their gaff, Pep Guardiola faced a familiar foe in Mauricio Pochettino and without a doubt, the most devastating team in the competition. And in the 1st half, Paris Saint-Germain were at their box office best and City didn’t have a pray.

It felt like domination wasn’t just the goal, destruction was and PSG were well set to make the Sky Blues’ nightmares come true. The passing seemed almost choregraphed, Angel Di Maria reminded the world that at 33, he can still be unplayable and Neymar was taking souls in sadistic fashion. In the process, Marquinhos bagged a goal from a corner after Ilkay Gundogan failed to track the PSG skipper. And in the midst of all of this, City were pedestrian, shell shocked and the occasion got to both their heads and their legs.

Same old, same old. The memes were meticulously saved in the drafts with over a million pictures of Guardiola and his water bottle taking over the Internet. But there’s more.

Staring fate right in the face and coming out on top

In that 2nd half, City exuded not just an unquenchable thirst for glory but to prove to the globe that they indeed are the best team on the planet. Far too long had an identity crisis marred this set of elite players when the world was watching. And instead of looking like they’d borrowed the ball from the big boys in the first 45, the Citizens were teaching a lesson in keeping possession.

The tempo went from one extreme to another and every time PSG tried to kill City on the break, the tireless press ensured an unsung workhorse like Bernardo Silva recycled the ball within a 5-second window. The likes of Rodri and even Ruben Dias pushed forward just to win the ball back and sent the kings of Paris a message that they were going all out to make sure they dethrone them.

If a Gundogan was unusually quiet in the 1st half, he oozed control as he kept the game ticking. Kevin De Bruyne barely looked fully fit in the first 45 but ever since the second he came out of that tunnel for the 2nd, the Belgian was always available for a pass. trying to unlock the Parisian defence and never giving in. Riyad Mahrez was constantly scheming his way throughout the right-channel, linking up with Bernardo and Walker and asking questions.

PSG were pegged back to the point where you’d think they were just minutes away from winning the tie as a whole when in fact it was far from won. The ones for the highlight reels, be it when Mbappe darted past John Stones or Joao Cancelo couldn’t even get a finger on Di Maria were few and far in between. And after Zinchenko came on to replace his Portuguese compatriot who did admittedly have a shocker, ironically enough, his doppelganger and to many, long lost brother, Kevin De Bruyne opened the scoring.

And sure, it was as epic as it was comical after Keylor Navas was almost waiting for a touch from an opposition player so he could spring towards the ball, it ended up in the back of the net after what was a sublime cross anyway. Fortune favors the brave and you can certainly say that for a man who has scored in each of City’s knockout rounds this season; a man who is the best midfielder in the world for a host of reasons.

And 7 minutes later, after a needless foul outside the box, Manchester City won a freekick and it almost felt too cinematic to not be a gamechanger. Or at least that’s the case if you consider the narrative of their cursed history in the competition. This felt different.

As the cameras panned to De Bruyne, it only made sense that City’s best player bangs in a free-kick and wheels away in celebration. PSG expected it as well as Gundogan entered the penalty area, Mahrez stepped back and all eyes were on KDB. The ref blows his whistle and out of nowhere, the Algerian strikes the ball in between a wall that split faster than the French side’s bottle in the 2nd half and Mahrez had turned matchwinner again.

Coming off taking home the Man of The Match against Spurs in the Carabao Cup final, the Algerian proved once against that he’s unfazed by the big occasions.

Embracing the ugliness because it can’t always be pretty

And even after what was undoubtedly the Sky Blues’ biggest night in Europe, they were light years away from their very best. You associate Guardiola’s brand of football with sexiness. This was flawed, sloppy, indecisive and beyond preposterous at times. But it was lionhearted. There was an unwillingness to settle. City were clinical, controlled and never looked like they had completely lost their heads.

Watch back the Monaco, Spurs and Lyon games and it’s embarrassing. City played so much more like themselves in the 1st leg against Monaco and the 2nd leg against Tottenham but ultimately, they lost. This Manchester City team don’t need to be a certain version of themselves, based on a sometimes-skewed self-image to turn up.

They struggled defensively but on the balance of things, Stones and Dias, despite the odd shaky moment were impregnable once again. For context, Neymar and Mbappe had a combined xG (Expected Goals) of 0.11 on the night.

Going forward, City looked out of ideas but that didn’t stop them from probing, asking questions and eventually scoring, both from moments of madness and magic.

It doesn’t always have to be a passage of play that belongs in the Louvre to win you a game of football. As long as it goes in, it doesn’t matter and Guardiola’s men couldn’t care less about the scrappiness of the first goal. Embracing the ugliness because it can’t always be pretty may just be the secret sauce behind this City side that are built on a mean defence, different to the tremendous, yet soft underbelly that plagued them the sides in the past.

‘Superbia in proelia’, a Latin phrase that translates to ‘pride in battle’ is a famous Manchester City slogan. They showed just that as a Champions League final beckons and their history of bottling it finally looks dead and buried.

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