PSG against Manchester City more than just ‘El Gasico’

City will provide a stern test for French champions

 Zlatan Ibrahimovic says PSG are hunting down the Champions League. Photograph: Afp

Zlatan Ibrahimovic says PSG are hunting down the Champions League. Photograph: Afp


For Manchester City a first Champions League meeting with Paris Saint-Germain represents something genuinely new in the years of plenty. Big spenders? Meet bigger spenders. Gulf state project club? Well, fancy seeing you here. Victory against France’s champions-in-perpetuity would open the door to a first European semi-final in 44 years for this Pellegrini-issue City. More significant perhaps, for once they find themselves pitted against an even more rapaciously ambitious opponent, a club that has already consumed its own domestic league and will not rest until it has, in the words of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, “hunted down this Champions League”.

As has been pointed out often since the tie was drawn, in a certain light PSG versus City represents a wider staging point for European club football. At least one wag has already styled this as the first El Gasico – incorrectly as it happens given the much greater reliance of the United Arab Emirates on petroleum. But the fact remains no one left in this competition has spent like these two in the past five years. Never mind wage bills and infrastructure, £300m apiece on new players is twice as much as Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich in the same period.

In France something painfully costly is sometimes referred to as un coup de bambou, a painful thwack with a bamboo switch. But for these arriviste powers it has been an oddly painless rise to a point on the continuum of millions spent and high-grade parts signed where success simply becomes inevitable.

And yet to dwell on all this is to tell only half the story. For all the gulf state derby schtick this is a hugely intriguing tie between well-matched teams. If there is a degree of swagger around PSG right now, it is well earned. Enthroned as French champions two weeks ago, they face a City squad in a state of pre-Pep entropy. Even the playing strengths of Laurent Blanc’s team seem to tessellate directly with City’s weaknesses. PSG have scalding pace on the flanks and a high-class centre-forward. City have an apparently insoluble weakness at full-back and in Eliaquim Mangala, an error-prone jumble of limbs and sweat at centre-half.

Even the absence of Yaya Touré from the first leg feels significant. Touré may be conducting a final, ambling springtime lap of honour but he has been excellent in Europe this season, can score from anywhere, and has the kind of muscle to face down a powerful PSG midfield. Buoyed by the defeat of Chelsea, some sections of the French media have even floated the – essentially meaningless – suggestion this well-geared, possession-hogging Zlatan-mobile would dominate the Premier League as it has Ligue 1.

None of which is likely to hurt City’s prospects of springing a mild upset. Certainly the travelling support in Paris – already on anthem-booing terms with Uefa, and more recently appalled by the extravagant pricing policy for this tie – are more likely to be comforted by City’s status as second favourites.

The Premier League title challenge may have flatlined but these are hardly dark times at the Etihad Stadium. In many ways the pressure is entirely off Manuel Pellegrini and his demob-happy team. A summer of rebuilding is in train. Aslan – a bald, intense, skinny-tied Aslan – has been sight in the far corners of the kingdom. Let’s face it, no one really expects anything from the next six weeks.

Whereas for this Zlatan-shaped PSG Mk1 this is pretty much it. The current ream is a beautifully fluent possession machine but there will be a clearout at some point soon with the interest in Neymar indication of the need to lasso another captive exotic bird to drive the brand. Another quarter-final exit, another domestic procession would represent a very expensive kind of stasis.

Even tactically PSG’s greater need to assert themselves comes into play. It is rare for City to take on a team who expect to dominate possession but here it might just play to their own strengths. Kevin De Bruyne’s return to fitness is key. Not just because of his wider beneficial effects – before De Bruyne’s injury City were on a run of one defeat in nine – but for more specifically tailored reasons.

De Bruyne’s real strength is the swift, surgical break from defence to attack. With Wolfsburg his best moments came in the same kind of central role he filled against Bournemouth at the weekend, most memorably in the spectacular 4-1 defeat of Bayern Munich. He likes this kind of occasion. In seven matches last year against the ball-hoggers of Bayern, Internazionale and Borussia Dortmund he scored six goals and provided four assists.

In this sense Touré’s absence sharpens City’s gameplan. Without him De Bruyne will become the central attacking focus, and a genuinely potent one too, likely to find space off the back of the more cumbersome Thiago Motta in Marco Verratti’s absence. PSG made much of the 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge a month ago. But Chelsea ended that match with Bertrand Traoré and Gary Cahill playing up front. De Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Agüero may have barely trained together in the last three months. But as underdog quarter-finalists go this is a pretty high-quality attacking trident.

Perhaps the room temperature nature of the League 1 title race might even play a part here. For France’s divine-right champions, floating in their tin can, high above the world, the season will increasingly boil down to these knockout ties in spring. Much is made in England of the benefits of less strenuous weekly competition but there is another side to this. PSG were simply too good for Chelsea but City will be the best team they have played since the 1-0 defeat in November against a weakened Real Madrid.

City will be happy to crouch behind their guard for a while, to look to spring in behind a team who like to smother high up the pitch in attack and midfield. PSG are right to be confident. They are a hugely talented team. But as Samir Nasri pointed out with an agreeably spiky sense of defiance this week, “this is Paris, not Barça”, and even a make-do-and-mend Chelsea had their chances in Paris. No other team in the competition have scored as many late goals as City. New eras or otherwise, this promises to be a tie that stretches right to the wire.

(Guardian service)

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