With the speculation swirling, Mauricio Pochettino thought that he had caught a break on the field in Manchester. The Paris Saint-Germain manager, hotly linked with the vacant post across town at United, had watched his team look vulnerable at the back and erratic all over. It was difficult to make out the gameplan. And then they led through Kylian Mbappé early in the second half. On one level, it felt like a credible pitch for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s old job.
Manchester City could not lose this Champions League tie because they were the better team for so long. It was Pep Guardiola who had the well-grooved strategy, he had the better players on the night – namely Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva – and yet profligacy threatened to undermine it.
City would narrow their focus and get what they deserved. Raheem Sterling scored the equaliser and when Gabriel Jesus, on as a substitute, guided home from Silva’s lovely lay-off, City were on their way to the victory that ensured their qualification to the last 16 as group winners.
It felt entirely fitting that Pochettino and PSG were staying at the Lowry Hotel – where José Mourinho had resided throughout his Manchester United tenure. Because Pochettino and United had provided a large element to the back story – in terms of will he or won’t he go to Old Trafford to succeed Solskjær.
Pochettino, typically, went through his rumours spiel on Tuesday at the pre-match press conference, professing happiness in his current job while denying no reports and leaving the door ajar. PSG, surely, cannot be amused. Their position at the moment is that Pochettino is going nowhere during the season.
PSG have a Champions League to win, after all, and this was always going to be a fascinating benchmark for them. And, indeed, City. PSG’s “three kings,” as Pochettino has described Lionel Messi, Mbappé and Neymar, were on the field but what of their City equivalents? It was certainly a shame that Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish were missing.
Grealish’s pre-match tweet that he had four tickets which he could not use got a bit of traction.
Pep Guardiola loves to find solutions. It is what keeps his mind whirring. And here it was to start Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left of a midfield three, with Bernardo Silva as the false nine. Obviously there was flexibility, with Ilkay Gündogan sometimes wandering up top.
Riyad Mahrez was in the mood, swaying this way and that off the right, his touch ever silky, and he nearly gave City the lead after a wonderful move on 18 minutes which he started. The pass to Gündogan, who was virtually on the byline, did not look on but Mahrez made it and got the ball back via Silva. Cutting inside, he shaped a curler past Keylor Navas only for Achraf Hakimi to head off the line.
It was PSG’s second goalline clearance, the first having come early on when Rodri got above Hakimi to meet a Mahrez free-kick. Presnel Kimpembe was in the right place to head away, with Navas beaten.
PSG measured their first-half thrills mainly in nutmegs. Messi did Raheem Sterling with one; Mbappé on Rodri was the other but there was little in terms of structured play from Pochettino’s team. And yet they could have led going into half-time when John Stones took a showy and unwise extra touch in the 44th minute on halfway and was robbed by Neymar, who released Mbappé. One on one with Ederson, Mbappé opened up his body and curled high. It was a bad miss.
City were quicker and more coherent in the first half. Their press discomfited PSG and they had other fine chances – none better than the one for Gündogan on 33 minutes after slick approach work and a João Cancelo cross. Nuno Mendes fluffed the clearance and Gündogan had the time to measure the shot. He sidefooted against the post. Zinchenko also had an effort blocked by Marquinhos and Mahrez had Navas scrambling across his goal with a low curler.
Pochettino has been open about the difficulty of finding a system that draws the best from his marquee trio up front. Each of them, he pointed out last week, want to play a different way and each of them wants to be the main man. There had been flickers from them in the first half, although nothing more. Pochettino swapped them about; they wandered a bit themselves. Perhaps it is simply a question of waiting.
They fired early in the second half, Neymar stepping over a pass inside from Nuno and Messi quickly exchanging passes with Leandro Paredes to create the space for the cross. When he cut it back, it deflected off Kyle Walker and there was Mbappé to ram underneath Ederson.
City did not panic. They knew that they could prise apart PSG’s backline, having got in behind them many times, and the equaliser came when Rodri chipped up the inside-right channel for the onrushing Walker. Nobody tracked him and, when he volleyed across first time, the substitute Gabriel Jesus manufactured a flick under pressure and Sterling stretched to jab home.
Jesus had extended Navas and yet PSG, so dangerous in the smallest of bursts, might have retaken the lead when Neymar swapped passes with the substitute Ángel Di María and sliced through. The finish was all wrong. Jesus would show him the way.