For much of his pre-match news conference, Pep Guardiola stuck to a familiar mantra of recent weeks.
Manchester City were 2-1 to the good against Paris Saint-Germain, with two away goals in the bank and a first Champions League final within touching distance.
All they had to do was “be who we are” and “be more calm”. A two-time winner burnt five times at this stage of the competition with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Guardiola exuded an authoritative air.
However, when the rampaging nature of some of City’s European exits were put to him – most notably Mauricio Pochettino’s previous visit to the Etihad Stadium with Tottenham – he conceded there was only so much he could do.
“Nobody can control the chaos,” Guardiola said. Perhaps he’d checked the weather forecast.
Enjoying loosened COVID-19 restrictions, Manchester’s beer gardens thronged with punters last weekend. A couple of hours before kick-off, a weather front blew in from somewhere near Old Testament Egypt.
Snow and hail flecked the first-half playing surface, but there was little cool about City’s opening to proceedings.
Within 30 seconds, Phil Foden charged into Alessandro Florenzi. A minute later Fernandinho – Guardiola’s customary flirtation with a surprise selection on these occasions – offered a similarly agricultural “Good evening!” to Angel Di Maria that apparently lingered.
Kyle Walker blocked from Neymar, Bernardo Silva blocked from Di Maria and then Walker erred to be outfoxed by Marco Verratti.
Of all the masterful playmakers on display, Verratti was the one who best retained his balletic poise despite the conditions. After half an hour, the Italy playmaker had completed 28 of his 29 passes, 18 of those probing menacingly inside the City half.
The hosts were creaking when referee Bjorn Kuipers awarded an absurd seventh-minute penalty. The ball struck Oleksandr Zinchenko’s shoulder. Kuipers checked the monitor sheepishly and overturned his call while Zinchenko unloaded barrels of frustration and emotional energy in the direction of his assistant.
“Nobody can control the chaos.”
Well, maybe Ederson can, high-risk/low-pulse goalkeeping replicant that he is. City finally enjoyed a period of smooth possession, moving the ball back to their Brazilian gloveman.
It might not be exactly “who we are” in Guardiola terms, but Ederson’s booming 90-yard pass down the left was immaculate. Zinchenko, propelled by a mixture of shrewd positional play and righteous indignation, charged onto the pass.
Kevin De Bruyne was unable to convert, his shot blocked, but Riyad Mahrez was alert to the loose ball, becoming the second player from an English club to score in both legs of a Champions League semi-final after Sadio Mane in 2017-18.
Still, City did not completely settle. One ludicrously dicey roll out from Ederson to Silva saw Di Maria steal in and fire just wide from outside the box.
However, with Kylian Mbappe convalescing on the bench, PSG began to look a touch one-dimensional. The threat of the France star’s electric pace in behind was replaced by Mauro Icardi’s cloak of invisibility. By the time the former Inter striker was substituted in the 62nd minute, none of his 16 touches remained in the memory.
Mbappe’s absence meant everything was happening in front of City and, although their defence had plenty of work to do, Walker, the irrepressible Zinchenko and John Stones all enjoyed stellar nights.
One exceptional Zinchenko challenge to deny Neymar early in the second half saw Stones envelope his diminutive colleague in a bear hug. At that stage in the contest, it was as valuable as any goal.
Then there was Ruben Dias. Perhaps nobody can control the chaos, but the hulking Portugal centre-back could probably block it.
No City player made more than Dias’ three blocks. One of those appeared to be with his nose when Ander Herrera blasted goalwards. The former Benfica skipper bounced back up, looking convinced that there is no more fun to be had in the world than stopping a shot in a Champions League semi-final with your face.
Mahrez might beg to differ. Life in Manchester has not always been easy for the ex-Leicester City favourite, but he is now one of Guardiola’s go-to men and a supplier of cutting edge within a team of whirring creators.
Two of those – De Bruyne and the now habitually brilliant Phil Foden – combined to create a wonderful second for Mahrez.
Chaos then consumed PSG, their race run. Di Maria kicked out at Fernandinho – Brazil getting one over on Argentina in that eternal battle of perpetual antagonism – and there was plenty more erratic nonsense to follow. Zinchenko was still adorably furious, but elsewhere there was a steely calm and abundant class in sky blue.
Mahrez rounded out his night of nights by doing a Dias, haring back into his own area to make a block. It nearly summarised a tale of mission almost accomplished, of chaos controlled.
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