The curiosity that is Manchester City’s 2015-16 campaign took a remarkable turn Tuesday night as the blue side of Manchester earned the first ever UEFA Champions League semifinal berth in the club’s history. One could be forgiven for mistaking Manchester City for the football equivalent of Benjamin Button this season. Manchester City’s season was born with the expectation of a Premier League title, and progressing past the round of 16 in the Champions League for the first time in club history. A Premier League title became more of an assumption than an expectation thanks to a monumental early season collapse by reigning champions Chelsea. After on the face being anointed the respect of a battle-tested mature team, City’s façade of maturity fell victim to reverse aging. Manuel Pellegrini’s side endured a midlife crisis of inconsistent performances as key players like David Silva and Yaya Toure struggled for form. City fell victim to the gossip that defines the teenage years as the club announced Pep Guardiola would take over for Pellegrini as manager at the end of the season. City seemed to have fallen all the way back to childhood as the Sky Blues found themselves in a heated race to finish in 4th place in the Premier League beneath the likes of perennial 4th place finishers Arsenal, Arsenal’s inferior rivals Tottenham, and a club by the name of Leicester City who are just happy to be in the top flight. Just as infancy seemed an inevitable fate for Pellegrini’s men, Man City overcame heavy favorites, PSG, to earn a spot in the Champions League semifinal. How did city overcome the curse of reverse aging, and topple European giants PSG to advance to the Champions League semifinals?
Pellegrini deserves all the credit for tactically out dueling PSG boss Laurent Blanc in both legs. In Paris, and especially Manchester, City was able to concede possession to the French club and strike quickly on the counterattack. City successfully minimized the number of scoring chances Blanc’s men were able to create, even though the game was played at PSG’s preferred pace. A lack of apparent scoring opportunities for PSG was especially evident in the second leg at the Etihad. Manchester City also successfully chose the right spots to apply pressure higher up the pitch, and created a number of dangerous scoring chances in both games because of the created pressure. The sequence leading up to the penalty kick Sergio Aguero earned in the first half of the second leg against PSG is a perfect example of Man City’s careful pressing causing problems for the French outfit.
In addition to Pellegrini’s tactical success, City benefitted from some exceptional center back play. Center back had been a problem area for City this season. Vincent Kompany has struggled for fitness, Eliaquim Mangala seems a failed experiment who will most likely be gone once the Guardiola era arrives, Nicolas Otamendi has played well in flashes but looks to have been audaciously overpaid for, and Martin Demichelis has fallen behind Fernandinho in the center back pecking order following a nightmare of an outing against Manchester United (see below).
The loss of Kompany for the two legs against PSG appeared to be an ominous sign for City against a potent PSG attack. Mangala and Otamendi did about as well as could be expected in the first leg in Paris where City was heavy underdogs. The Mangala and Otamendi pairing put on a masterful performance in the return fixture as they essentially took Ibrahimovic out of the game. Zlatan’s only memorable contribution came from two shots from free kicks which were both seen off by Joe Hart. Aside from one Edinson Cavani opportunity after City had taken the lead through De Bruyne, PSG’s attack never really posed a palpable threat to score
De Bruyne was the City light that shined brightest in the 1-0 victory in the second leg. While City’s defense stifled Ibrahimovic all night, De Bruyne was a thorn in the side of PSG defenders until being subbed off in the 84th minute. The Belgian showed off world class passing ability as he sliced apart the PSG back line on multiple occasions. De Bruyne capped off an excellent performance with a breathtaking curler from 24 yards out around PSG keeper, Kevin Trapp. De Bruyne is a match winning talent who would figure to be a centerpiece of the Manchester City squad for years to come. If Manchester City has hopes of advancing to a Champions League final this season Kevin De Bruyne would figure to play a major role in their upcoming semifinal.
Manchester City may have saved the completion of their regression back to infancy with a Champions League quarterfinal victory over PSG. Regardless of the inconsistent performances City has put forward this season, an undermanned City deserves credit for emerging as unlikely winners from their Champions League matchup with European giants PSG. Can Manuel Pellegrini pull off the most extraordinary of accomplishments and exit his managerial position this summer with City successfully aging to full maturity again…as European Champions?