You won’t often find a meeting of two Champions League heavyweights in which the 90 minutes on the pitch are a sideshow, but they were in Manchester City’s 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain.
For one thing, RB Leipzig were 4-0 up half-time against Club Brugge, making the result at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday largely redundant: both these teams knew they would be into the last 16 should Leipzig win.
The game was therefore a sub-plot, albeit of the calibre of the Succession writers’ room. The main story related to a wholly different dysfunctional dynasty, the pre-match discourse dominated by Mauricio Pochettino and Manchester United’s latest post-Ferguson search for a manager. You have to hand it to United for making one of their rivals’ biggest games of the season more about them. Noisy neighbours, indeed.
Pochettino, we are led to believe, has misgivings about staying as PSG head coach, despite insisting this week that he was enjoying life at the club. With his family still in London and an uncomfortable feeling around Parc des Princes, the former Tottenham boss, it is said, would be greatly interested in a return to England via United.
It definitely looked like PSG minds were elsewhere in the first half. Their plans were upset by the loss of Marco Verratti and Georginio Wijnaldum to late injuries, while Sergio Ramos is still a spectator, and they were distinctly second best against the Premier League champions despite the 0-0 scoreline.
While the glittering trident of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe showed only the odd spark, City’s forwards shone brightly, Riyad Mahrez setting the tone with every magnificent first touch. Ilkay Gundogan hit the post when he should have scored; Marquinhos led a penalty-box blockade, the captain and Achraf Hakimi each stopping goal-bound efforts.
There, at least, Pochettino deserves credit. With Ander Herrera, Idrissa Gueye and Leandro Paredes screening the back four, it was hard for City to test Keylor Navas despite ‘MNM’ guarding their own defenders about as well as a chocolate shell protects a peanut. Keeping it tight and trusting his stars to improvise is not a method for which Pochettino is renowned; it’s straight out of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer playbook, one that brought him four wins over Pep Guardiola in all competitions as United manager.
But it got PSG their lead five minutes into the second half. Messi’s cross was deflected to Mbappe and he blasted through Ederson’s legs. It was his 29th Champions League goal in 50 games, a tally bettered only by two French players in history and one you suspect he will easily surpass.
PSG began to threaten a second on the break, but after Herrera was lost to injury, Raheem Sterling stabbed in at the far post after Rodri brilliantly played in Kyle Walker. It was no less than City deserved and few would have begrudged them their winner, Gabriel Jesus steering the ball in from Bernardo Silva’s lay-off after Mahrez was given space to cross from the right for what felt like the 37th time. It was a great antidote to their 2-0 loss in Paris, where City did everything with the ball except put it between the goal posts before Messi spectacularly killed the contest.
And that’s perhaps the key takeaway from this not-quite-dead-rubber. The two most lavish projects in football history have followed disparate routes: while one is carried by individual stars, the other is powered by the magic of its manager. Neither has yet led to the Champions League trophy, but on this evidence, it’s the men in sky blue who will be challenging this season.
City, incontrovertibly, are Guardiola’s City. This is not Pochettino’s PSG. And as long as that is the case, the talk of discontent will continue, and the shadow of Old Trafford will loom large in the City of Light.