Mahrez fires Manchester City past PSG into first Champions League final
It was the classic sucker punch, a counter-attacking masterpiece and, when Phil Foden crossed and Riyad Mahrez scooped the finish high into the Paris Saint-Germain net, the only disappointment was that the stands at the Etihad Stadium were empty. What a scene it would have been.
At that point, Mahrez had two, PSG were broken, having previously hinted at getting the goal they needed to make a game of it, and Manchester City knew.
For the first time in their history, they were going to the Champions League final.
In the Colin Bell stand, a gaggle of yellow-jacketed medical personnel leapt about while the City substitutes and various members of staff did likewise, losing themselves in the moment. It was slightly surreal, rather like the sight of the pre-match hailstorm of near biblical proportions. This is not supposed to happen in early May.
But in the virtually deserted stadium, the emotion was raw and tangible.
When the money started pouring in from Abu Dhabi, this was the dream for City, to reach European football’s showpiece game.
The journey has been long, marked by angst and heartbreak, although nobody ever said it would be straightforward. The Champions League is nothing if not capricious. But the suffering has somehow made it all feel sweeter. Pep Guardiola knows all about going through the wringer, having lost his previous four semi-finals and five of seven before this.
He predicted his players would suffer and they did. They had to put their bodies on the line, with all of the defenders excelling, particularly Rúben Dias and Oleksandr Zinchenko, who Guardiola preferred to João Cancelo.
But then there was Kevin De Bruyne finding Foden, getting the ball back and playing him in again. The pair were too quick, of mind and body, and Foden’s low cross was a beauty. Mahrez could not miss.
Guardiola had wanted City to play the tie and not the occasion and this was a triumph of their application, of their mentality.
PSG, by contrast, lost themselves in a fog of frustration and recrimination. Ángel Di María was sent off for a petulant stamp on Fernandinho and there was the sight of Mauricio Pochettino, the PSG manager, striding on to the pitch; ostensibly, to calm down his players but also to complain to the referee, Björn Kuipers.
Some of PSG’s players seemed determined to follow Di María into the changing room, with Marco Verratti getting one yellow card but not a second and Presnel Kimpembe escaping with a booking for a scything challenge on the substitute Gabriel Jesus.
The groundstaff had needed to rake the sleet off the lines before kick-off and with underfoot conditions tricky City’s nerves had jangled early on.
So had those of Kuipers, who pointed to the penalty spot on six minutes after PSG appeals for a handball against Zinchenko. An Abdou Diallo cross had flicked off Dias and crashed into Zinchenko’s shoulder and it was a mystery as to why Kuipers made his decision. Happily for City, VAR advised a rethink.
City felt better when they took the lead and it was Ederson who got the move started with a magnificent long ball from the edge of his own area for the onrushing Zinchenko.
PSG were caught cold. With Foden tearing into the six-yard box, Zinchenko cut back smartly for De Bruyne and when his shot was blocked by Alessandro Florenzi, the ball broke for Mahrez, who finished from a tight angle.
PSG still needed two goals. And they did plenty to threaten the first during the opening quarter. Marquinhos rose to guide a header against the crossbar while there was the moment when Ederson rolled the ball out to Bernardo Silva, who dawdled and was robbed by Di María.
With Ederson in a poor position, Di María had plenty of the goal to aim at from the edge of the area. He curled his shot inches wide.
City made a few mistakes in the first half and, for PSG, Neymar and Di María flickered. To Pochettino’s frustration, though, his team’s end product was poor. Kylian Mbappé, an unused substitute as he carried a calf problem, was missed.
What City did well throughout was to get men around the ball on the cover and regain their shape almost immediately whenever it was compromised.
The scene was different at the start of the second half with virtually all of the sleet scraped from the pitch. Two dozen or so groundstaff had worked purposefully during the break and it was easy to imagine Guardiola having given them the order. Perish the thought that the Manchester weather would stand in City’s way.
City measured their progress as much in chances denied, with a big one being when Zinchenko threw himself into a vital block on Neymar. John Stones, who had been beaten in a 50-50 challenge by Di María to spark the move, celebrated wildly with his teammate. Dias also got himself in front of an Ander Herrera volley.
City absorbed everything that PSG could throw at them and it threatened to become a rout after Mahrez’s second and the red card.
The outstanding Foden struck a post but City had done more than enough. History is theirs. Now they want more.