Soccer

Champions League: Ruben Dias propels Manchester City to finals with classic defensive display

This might have been the battle of Europe’s nouveau riche for a place in the biggest game of them all, but as the ball trudged its way along a playing surface scarred by the chilling conditions you might have been forgiven for thinking Manchester City had been transported back to the late 90s and their bleak midwinter battles with Walsall and Macclesfield Town.

The smattering of early May snow seemed like an amusing sideshow in the first half but its impact on proceedings early on was altogether more significant. Passes made agonizing progress to their teammates, whose grip on the surface was rarely sure. Two of the most technically gifted teams in Europe spent much of the early knockings miscuing simple passes, and slipping and sliding into each other as though this were a Champions League It’s A Knockout crossover.

In such conditions City somehow contrived to cast themselves as the brave underdogs, desperately holding onto their lead in hostile conditions that seemed to have discombobulated their wealthy opponents. This was not the football that Pep Guardiola has pioneered over a decade and a half. From the moment Riyad Mahrez doubled his side’s advantage in the tie this was low possession, defending in numbers football done to perfection.

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A passage in the 35th minute typified City’s exceptional defense. PSG were well placed with plenty of men up the pitch and possession just inside the attacking third. One might think that the visiting team, who face massed ranks on a weekly basis in Ligue 1, might be able to charm their way through the two banks of defense but City closed them down with such ferocity that the ball went right the way back from the top of the pitch to Keylor Navas in goal. It was a cycle that PSG would repeat ad nauseam, best case scenario being the sort of low probability shot that Ander Herrera got away in a subsequent passage.

By this time City were already ahead, thanks to long ball football with more than a smattering of elan. There was nothing agricultural about Ederson’s pass to unleash Oleksandr Zinchenko down the left, this was counterattacking carried out to perfection. It is the sort that Neymar and company specialized in over the course of the tournament but tonight they simply were not allowed to do so.

For an hour Mauricio Pochettino’s side did everything that they might have realistically tried to beat this team. First came an energetic press that is only so effective when City’s goalkeeper is pinging passes through the sleet and snow like Aaron Rodgers. Then a steady display of possession first football that ultimately saw them moving left to right then left then right.

Eventually it came down to hitting and hoping, a string of ambitious and unlikely efforts that Ruben Dias and John Stones ensured would not even trouble Ederson. On a night where City blocked as many shots as they had in any Premier League or European games since 2014 their goalkeeper had next to nothing to do.

Indeed this might have been a night for Pep Guardiola to make good on his proclamations that Ederson could play in midfield, he was pinging passes with greater accuracy than Herrera or Leandro Paredes whilst Dias in particular managed to get himself in the way of any shot on goal.

On the crowning night so far of their remarkable season it was appropriate that Dias was unquestionably the best player on the pitch. City’s return to the summit of English football and their status as the best team in Europe, one which they are strong favorites to confirm in Istanbul later this month, has been built on an outstanding defense anchored by the Portugal international. His defensive energy was infectious, as shots clattered off him so did they off Stones and Zinchenko. Kyle Walker and Fernandinho thundered into challenges – often unsuccessfully – but even when they did not win the ball they were imposing themselves on their visitors firmly but fairly.

Between them Stones and Dias have blocked 12 shots in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Ederson has made 11 saves. It is almost as if Guardiola has three goalkeepers whenever the ball gets near the City box.

As for PSG, when you have tried everything and you can’t so much as draw a save from the opposing goalkeeper and when you dominate possession only to get sliced through by two excellent counterattacks, it is perhaps understandable that they should lose their cool just as they did in the first leg. None of Pochettino’s side lacked for effort, even Neymar was streaming back at great pace as City rifled their way towards Riyad Mahrez’s second goal.

That move was everything that has made this team one of the best on the continent since Guardiola’s appointment. Phil Foden was direct and fearless. De Bruyne was spotting angles that should not be there. Mahrez finished off the move in the same emphatic fashion that he, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and others have been for years now.

But if that is what we have come to expect from City then the resilience, discipline and fearlessness with which they defended their lead was something altogether new for this season. That is what has given them the edge on nights like tonight and may yet see Guardiola at the pinnacle of European football once more. 


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