Same city, same habits. On the eve of the biggest game of their season. — a Champions League semifinal, second leg, against Manchester City, who hold a 2-1 aggregate lead — Paris Saint-Germain have decided to keep the same routine as the last time they headed for the north-west of England.
When the French super-club played Manchester United in the Champions League group stage at Old Trafford in December, they stayed at the Lowry hotel in the city centre and Marco Verratti answered the questions of French broadcaster RMC the day before the game. They won 3-1, in what became a defining moment of their season. So before Tuesday’s clash with Manchester City, they are back in the Lowry again, with Verratti once again being put forward for interviews.
Obviously, the entire PSG operation is hoping for the same victorious outcome, which would see them qualify for a second successive Champions League final. That said, there’s one notable difference in their preparations: the manager. Thomas Tuchel was sacked 22 days after that flagship victory in the Theatre of Dreams, but Mauricio Pochettino will lean on the same recipe of preparation and routine in a bid to reproduce the performance the Parisians turned in against Anthony Martial & Co.
On that night, the spirit of the team and their collective intensity was magnificent. PSG used the ball well, created chances, rode their luck and weathered the storm, too. They will have to do that all over again, and more, if they’re to book their place in the final.
To beat City by a two-goal margin or get any win with a higher scoreline than 2-1, Pochettino — on his return to England, and to a stadium where he has already broken Pep Guardiola’s heart with Tottenham Hotspur in this competition — will have to get his tactics spot on. Verratti and Leandro Paredes will have to be strong enough to cope with the home side’s pressing. Angel Di Maria, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar will have to be clinical and combine well. Then there’s Julian Draxler, who could be the surprise guest of the night on Tuesday. Every time he’s started for PSG in Europe, his versatility has been an asset and he has performed well, including at Barcelona and Bayern Munich earlier in the competition.
There’s another factor working in PSG’s favor, too: playing away from home, something PSG have done impressively this season in the Champions League. Whether going to Old Trafford, the Camp Nou or the Allianz Arena, the Parisians have used those occasions — and the pressure they bring — to get the best out of themselves and earn huge wins.
Yet Mbappe’s fitness is a worry. He was not fully fit in the first-leg defeat, and was rested at the weekend while his teammates struggled to beat Lens. The Etihad is a special stadium for the France World Cup winner. It was there that he announced himself to the world, in February 2017 at the age of 18, with AS Monaco as he tore City apart for 45 minutes in the Champions League round of 16. The Paris-born-and-bred forward is 22 now and a much better player, but a repeat performance would do just the trick for PSG.
City are a different team than the United side PSG beat in December, of course, boasting different qualities, and there’s certainly more at stake for them in this semifinal than in arguably any other game in the club’s history.
This squad and technical staff could further cement their legend in City’s annals by qualifying for their first-ever Champions League final. Thirteen years after the takeover by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and more than a billion dollars spent to make this club a regular contender for the biggest prizes, five years after the arrival of Pep Guardiola and five years after losing to Real Madrid in their last — and only — appearance at this stage, they are within a game of their Holy Grail: being crowned kings of Europe. And just a few days after their match against PSG, City could be anointed Premier League champions for the third time in the past four years as well.
Guardiola has been smart in his preparations, stating in Monday’s press conference that “I didn’t speak one word about them,” and that Man City need to “just focus on what we have to do,” but the pressure is there. You can just imagine how much the European Cup would mean to the manager, the players, the fans and the club. They are so close.
Man City have cruised through their European campaign so far, breezing through the group stage (against FC Porto, Olympiakos and Marseille), beating a naive and inexperienced Borussia Monchengladbach side and controlled Erling Haaland to knock out Borussia Dortmund with authority. Last week, they won in Paris with two lucky goals, but a result earned by their strong reaction after half-time following a first half in which they were fortunate to go in just 1-0 down. This return leg will be very different.
Could the expectations of being so close to the final prove hard to handle and ultimately get to them? Maybe. At kickoff on Tuesday, Guardiola’s side will fancy their chances of closing out the tie. But we saw in the first half of the first leg, when there was still plenty of football to be played, that the pressure does get to them, something Guardiola even admitted after that match.
Could it happen again? Man City play with a lot of confidence and certainty. They know how to play their game and win. On Saturday at Crystal Palace, with very much a reserve side, they registered their 32nd win in their past 35 matches (all competitions). Their strength is in tiring the opposition mentally when they have the ball, keeping it as much as possible, and restricting options with their relentless press when they don’t. That’s what they did in Paris in the final 45 minutes. They forced PSG into making mistakes, they didn’t let them play from the back and get the ball to Neymar or Mbappe.
The way they kept Mbappe quiet in particular was impressive: for the first time in his career, he failed to register a single shot in a Champions League game. But he will go again on Tuesday, against Guardiola, against Kevin De Bruyne, against the rest of the City team. Against the odds. Or, as Neymar put it, “with 1% chance to qualify, but 99% faith.”