Putting in a very dominant first half at Parc des Princes today, Paris Saint-Germain left the pitch with a well-earned 1-0 advantage over Manchester City in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semifinal tie. But, somehow, PSG forgot to play the second half.
Paris Saint-Germain coach, Mauricio Pochettino, was doubtless as aware, as was Man City coach, Pep Guardiola, that the Parisians had dominated the first half by playing at a high tempo, pressing high on the Man City half, and controlling the ball via Angel di Maria’s, Marco Verratti’s, Neymar’s, Alessandro Florenzi’s, and Kilyan Mbappe’s forward-moving retention when in possession.
This allowed the French team to move into advantageous positions while their opposition was busy focusing on one dribbler. The effects of the repeated action were that Paris Saint-Germain never allowed Man City to get into a rhythm thus reducing them to few offensive forays, while it provided PSG with control of the match and several scoring chances. Unfortunately for them, they only converted one.
The home side was not only unable to turn their control into multiple scores, most importantly they were unable to score at all via their normal potent avenues of pursuit mainly Mbappe and Neymar with a dollop of di Maria. The only goal came via sublimely taken corner by di Maria and an excellent header from central defender and captain Marquinhos at the 15th minute. And then, Paris Saint-Germain relaxed instead of pushing their advantage. For half an hour the home side was unable to break their opposition down a second time.
This fact should have been the warning Pochettino needed to rally his troops to further efforts in the second half as the match’s outcome was still undecided. Similarly, it was most likely not lost on Guardiola that his opponent’s advantage had been obtained via a mix of substantial physical effort, an on-pitch discipline Paris Saint-Germain were not known for, and one well-taken opportunity. The bottom line was Man City was by no means out of it and they simply had to keep playing their game to have a chance at a comeback.
When the second half whistle blew, Man City continued playing their game. PSG, meanwhile, simply disappeared from the pitch. They were no longer sliding all over the pitch trying to intercept passes. They did not press high up on Man City’s side. They did not retain possession or move the ball forward immediately upon the change of possession. And soon, the void they left was filled and Man City were in control and playing the game in a manner to their liking.
Yes, many of the expected issues did ensue, particularly how many Man City players took turns knocking Neymar, Mbappe, and di Maria to the ground. Those repeated fouls alone should have brought about yellows for repeat fouls to about half of Man City. But this time, the fouling was contributory but subsidiary.
Ironically, despite having been ceded control of the match, Man City was unable to put together sufficient scoring opportunities to take advantage. But as Chris Anderson and David Sally have taught us in their wonderful book—Why Everything you know about Soccer is Wrong—teams’ fortunes more often turn on the mistakes of their lesser mortals than on the overachievements of their stars. That was Paris Saint-Germain’s fate this evening.
In three fateful plays, each a colossal blunder, PSG handed Man City an away win they did not earn, were surprised to obtain, but will be happy to defend next week at Etihad Stadium.
At the 64th minute, Kevin de Bruyne sent in a looping searching cross in hopes someone would turn the tame cross into a scoring opportunity. But Paris Saint-Germain’s keeper, Keylor Navas, whose form has been oscillating between fantastic one match and jittery the next, remained rooted to his line, waiting for someone to make contact with the ball instead of charging it and taking control of the situation. He stayed back so long, reacted so late, and so poorly, that the ball bounced meekly beyond his reach and into the goal.
At the 71st-minute Idrissa Gueye fouled Phil Foden unnecessarily and in an optimal position for a free-kick. Then, Riyad Mahrez took a terrible free-kick from a very good position 25 yards away from goal and in front of the half-moon. The shot went hip-high straight at the wall and should have simply bounced off. But defenders Presnel Kimpembe and Leandro Paredes split apart, and the ball went between them, surprising Navas and hitting the back of the net before his outstretched body hit the turf.
With the score 1-2 against them, PSG still had what turned out to be 23 minutes left, stoppage time included, to at least get a draw, allowing them to progress with any away win.
But at the 77th minute Gueye, again, decided a crunching tackle on Ilkay Gundogan, somewhere in the vicinity of the center circle, was then the thing to do. His awful tackle could have easily broken the Man City player’s leg and earned the PSG defender a red card. From that moment forward—fourteen continuous minutes— Paris Saint-Germain did not muster a single serious attack.
Man City go home knowing a 0-1 loss and any draw sees them through, meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain need to at the very least win 2-0 away. Pochettino and his team will have a lot to ponder.
Real Madrid 1—1 Chelsea
Playing an inspired away game during which they outplayed their better-known rivals, Chelsea drew 1-1 at Real Madrid and went home knowing a nil-nil draw or a win will see them through.
Christian Pulisic scored a stupendous goal at the 14th and Karim Benzema responded in kind at the 29th for the only scores in a match the Blues should have won.