Football Features

“Riyad Mahrez and the Full Court Press” star as Man City beat PSG to make their first ever Champions League final

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:54, 4 May 2021 | Updated: 20:34, 24 November 2022

In an incredible night of football, Manchester City dominated and defeated PSG 2-0 at the Etihad (4-1 on aggregate) to qualify for their first ever Champions League final.

For a team that we so often associate with scintillating attacking play, Manchester City have shown a completely different side to themselves in the Champions League this season, turning into a frankly ridiculous defensive powerhouse.

PSG came into the second leg knowing a 0-2 win would be enough to make the final. To them, that wouldn’t have been a tall order given they had already beaten Manchester United 1-3 at Old Trafford, Barcelona 1-4 at the Camp Nou and Bayern Munich 2-3 at the Allianz Arena.

However, those games revolved around a massive host of good fortune with each of their opponents missing massive chances (Anthony Martial, Ousmane Dembélé and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting being notable culprits) and, more than that, a lethal counter-attack. An ability to move the ball from defence to attack at pace and then threaten there.

Manchester City just shut that down.

Alright, Kylian Mbappé was out injured and his goalscoring exploits were key to beating Barcelona and Bayern in particular, but Neymar was still out there. The second-best player in the world and he was paired with Angel Di Maria, a legendary big game performer. Yet by the end of the night Neymar had five shots without hitting the target and Di Maria was sent off in disgrace.

In fact, PSG didn’t hit the target at all. They had 14 shots but not one of them troubled Ederson (Marquinhos did hit the bar with a header, to be fair) in the City goal. How on earth did City so thoroughly devour the PSG attack? With Pep Guardiola’s oldest trick in the book: pressing.

City were pressing animals tonight, they made 22 tackles (more than PSG) and did not give their visitors a moment’s peace. They were so relentless in their press that the Parisians often found it hard to even get the ball out from their own area, with the comedic sight of them playing it around their defence desperately trying to find a non-existent chink in the City armour.

Fernandinho was at the peak of his powers here, on his 36th birthday he gave a masterclass in the dark arts where every challenge was a foul, but such a light foul that the referee barely even blew for free-kicks, let alone cards (Fernandinho avoided a booking all night long).

Of course; when you press as high as City did you will get beaten by passes, and that did happen at the Etihad. What you then need is your last line of defence to be as powerful as your first, and this has been City’s failing in the Champions League, with their centre-backs so often failing them at key moments. Not so tonight.

Ruben Dias has been a transformative signing in defence, resurrecting John Stones back to his peak self and bringing serenity to the Man City defence. While Walker predictably led City in tackles (as he was dealing with Neymar), Stones led City in clearances (four) as he kept on getting himself in the way of PSG’s passes to get the ball out of harm’s way. And when PSG did manage to get shots off Ruben Dias was a human brick wall, throwing himself in the way of everything; a game-high three blocks was his reward for his commitment.

But all the defending in the world is no good if you can’t score goals. Now this isn’t usually a problem for City but their newfound defensive solidity has come, in part, due to Guardiola’s shift to a striker-less formation with the hard-working Bernardo Silva as false nine.

So how do you score goals? Well, you have wing-forwards like Riyad Mahrez. The 30-year-old Algerian international cost City £60m and barely played in his first season, but that adaptation time was key for Mahrez to understand Pep Guardiola’s system and he has been absolutely amazing ever since.

And in the semi-final, he has been the decisive figure. The one player who added goals to all of City’s organisational brilliance. His free-kick scorched through PSG wall to win the first-leg, and then tonight at the Etihad he bagged both goals.

The first was a rapier-like right-footed finish from a narrow angle, the kind of thing most one-footed wingers tend to have nightmares about – but Mahrez finished it so coolly to give City an early lead (and huge credit must go to Ederson for a barely believable 70-yard pass straight over the top of PSG that made the goal possible).

Then the second strike saw the Algerian arrive at the back post to slam a first-time finish into the roof of the net to cap off a quality City counter-attack. Two thumping goals from a player who knows how to be in the right place at the right time and has the ice cold mentality to add the killer touch.

The majority of the attention will go to City’s outstanding defensive effort; but the goalscoring genius of Mahrez was just as decisive in sending City through to their first-ever final. Only Alessandro Del Piero and Robert Lewandowski have scored more goals across a single Champions League semi-final tie than Mahrez’s treble. Not bad for a kid from Sarcelles who first appeared in English football in the Championship with Leicester, eh?

Now that kid and his incredible team-mates will walk out in a Champions League final. The showpiece game of the showpiece club tournament; “It’s a competition that is so difficult,” said Pep Guardiola after the match; “there is something in the stars.”

The Catalan coach is back in his first final since 2011 after so many painful exits with Barcelona, Bayern and especially City. “We suffered together,” Guardiola said after the game, and whether he was talking about his last decade in Europe, or City’s last few years of struggle, or just tonight where they had to put in a monumental defensive effort; one thing is for sure: thanks to Mahrez and their Full Court Press, their suffering is now over.