In much of his pre-match press conference, Pep Guardiola stuck to a familiar mantra of recent weeks.
Manchester City were 2-1 up against Paris Saint-Germain with two away goals in the bank and a first Champions League final within touching distance.
All they had to do was “be who we are” and “be more calm”. A two-time winner burned five times at this stage of the competition with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Guardiola radiated an authoritative air.
When the violent nature of some of City’s European exits was left to him – especially Mauricio Pochettino’s previous visit to the Etihad Stadium with Tottenham – he admitted that there was only so much he could do.
“No one can control the chaos,” Guardiola said. Maybe he had checked the weather forecast.
Manchester beer gardens enjoying loosened COVID-19 restrictions, filled with punters last weekend. A few hours before kick-off, a weather front blew into a place near Old Testament Egypt.
Snow and hail split the playing field in the first half, but there was a bit of cool at City’s opening of the case.
Within 30 seconds, Phil Foden accused Alessandro Florenzi. A minute later, Fernandinho – Guardiola’s usual flirtation with a surprising selection on these occasions – offered a similar agricultural “Good evening!” to Angel Di Maria, who apparently got stuck.
Kyle Walker blocked Neymar, Bernardo Silva blocked Di Maria, and then Walker celebrated for being ousted by Marco Verratti.
Of all the masterful playmakers on display, Verratti was the one who best maintained his ballet status despite the conditions. After half an hour, the Italian playmaker had completed 28 of his 29 passes, 18 of them probing threatening inside the city half.
The hosts creaked when referee Bjorn Kuipers awarded an absurd penalty in the seventh minute. The ball hit Oleksandr Zinchenko’s shoulder. Kuipers checked the monitor sheepishly and overturned his call, while Zinchenko unloaded barrels of frustration and emotional energy in the direction of his assistant.
“No one can control the chaos.”
Well, maybe Ederson, the high-risk / low-pulse goalie replicant that he is. City finally enjoyed a period of smooth possession and moved the ball back to their Brazilian gloves.
It may not be exactly “who we are” in Guardiola terms, but Ederson’s thriving 90-yard pass down the left was immaculate. Zinchenko, driven by a mixture of clever positional play and fair indignation, is put in on the pass.
Kevin De Bruyne could not convert, his shot was blocked, but Riyad Mahrez was aware of the loose ball and became the second player from an English club to score in both legs in a Champions League semi-final after Sadio Mane in 2017-18.
Still, City did not settle completely. One ridiculous dice roll from Ederson to Silva saw Di Maria steal in and shoot just wide outside the box.
However, PSG started to look one-dimensional when Kylian Mbappe was on his way back to the bench. The threat of the French star’s electric pace behind was replaced by Mauro Icardi’s cloak of invisibility. When the former Inter striker was replaced in the 62nd minute, none of his 16 hands remained in memory.
Mbappe’s absence meant that everything happened in front of City, and although their defense had plenty of work to do, Walker, the irresistible Zinchenko and John Stones enjoyed all the stars’ nights.
An extraordinary Zinchenko challenge to deny Neymar early in the second half saw the Stones wrap his little colleague in a bear hug. At that point in the competition, it was just as valuable as any goal.
Then there was Ruben Dias. Maybe no one can control the chaos, but the hulking Portugal center-back can probably block it.
No City player made more than Dias’ three blocks. One of them seemed to be with his nose when Ander Herrera blew goals. The former Benfica skipper jumped up again and then convinced that there is nothing more fun to have in the world than stopping a shot in a Champions League semi-final with your face.
Mahrez may ask to depart. Life in Manchester has not always been easy for the former Leicester City favorite, but he is now one of Guardiola’s go-to men and a pioneer in a team of whirling creators.
Two of them – De Bruyne and the now usually brilliant Phil Foden – combined to create a wonderful second for Mahrez.
Chaos then consumed PSG, their run. Di Maria started against Fernandinho – Brazil came over Argentina in the eternal battle with eternal antagonism – and there was much more irregular nonsense to follow. Zinchenko was still adorably furious, but elsewhere there was a calm and abundant class in sky blue.
Mahrez rounded off his night in the evening by making a Dias and retired to his own area to make a block. It almost summed up a tale of almost accomplished mission, of chaos.