MANCHESTER, England – In the last few minutes, even with the game sealed and a place in the final secured, Manchester City staff and substitutes couldn’t stand still. They were vibrating with energy. They roared at every poor challenge. They demanded action from the arbiter for every transgression. They applauded each completed passage.
As the clock ticked into added time, they got worried and agitated when Paris Saint-Germain won a free kick in sight of Ederson’s goal. They applauded when he sailed. The voice of Mark Sertori, the club’s longtime masseur, roared through the empty Etihad stadium. “No chance,” he cried. There were only 30 seconds left and PSG had to score three times.
For the rational brain, there was nothing to worry about. Two goals from Riyad Mahrez had long since put the result beyond doubt. The distant prospect of a PSG revival had entirely evaporated when Ángel Di María, his Argentine wing, kicked out to Fernandinho and was duly kicked out. City had been home and dry ever since.
But the rational brain is silent when the stakes are so high. For all that City have achieved in the past 13 years, as they rose from a makeshift weight to a preeminent force in English football, they will soon be the winners of three of the last four Premier League titles and five of the 10. last. , the Champions League has become a kind of open wound.
Like PSG, City were built, at considerable expense, to win the Champions League. Not in the sense that it is the last frontier of the game, the greatest ambition of a team. It’s because for City – this iteration of City, anyway – this contest is the ultimate goal.
This is why Pep Guardiola, the peerless trainer of his generation, was hired; that’s why the people who hired him – his former colleagues from Barcelona, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano – were hired. This is why he had the chance to bring together a team that meets each of his requests in a training center built to allow him to work in absolute serenity.
Football, of course, doesn’t work on a formula no matter how much money and expertise is spent on building it. They learned it the hard way in City.
The long Premier League slog has proven easy to master compared to the Champions League chimera. There is, as Guardiola said, “something in the stars” in this competition, and it’s hard not to agree: he has spent most of the last 10 years leading a team. powerful Bayern Munich or one of the most important Manchester City teams. exquisite shine, but this will be his first appearance in the final of this tournament since 2011.
The disappointments were startling in their variety, convincing in their unpredictability. Under Guardiola, City were caught in the cold by a young and unannounced Monaco, then destroyed by a booming and starving Liverpool. He was heartbroken by Tottenham and his brain exhausted by Lyon.
And now, after a decade of trying, it’s shattered that ceiling. What this game means for football is a question that – for whatever City and PSG fans will want to say about it – the sport needs to keep thinking.
After all, it involved two teams backed by the unfettered wealth of the Gulf states competing for a spot in football’s most glamorous and exclusive club competition. it should not be controversial to suggest that the motives for their current primacy are not purely sporting.
This may have been the first time they’ve come together on such a big stage, but the simple economics at stake – especially in the aftermath of the pandemic – suggest it won’t be the last. They’ve spent their money differently, PSG on individuals and City on the larger squad, but they’ve spent it in sums few, if any, of their rivals can match.
But while geopolitics, morality and the wider ramifications matter, they don’t matter – not at the moment – to the players and staff who have been tasked with transporting Manchester City to where they want to be. . It’s not the story they’re a part of, not for them.
Instead, theirs is a story of personal ambition, childhood dreams and job satisfaction, to see decades of dedication rewarded not with a lucrative contract or high-level transfer, but with so much luck. expected to reach what is, in almost every sense of the word, the peak of their career.
This is why, a few minutes before the end, Kevin De Bruyne trooped out of the field, his face flushed and his body heaving, and collapsed on a chair. He, almost alone, didn’t spend the last few minutes bellowing, barking, screaming and berating: There was not a drop of energy left in his body.
He had spent everything to chase away PSG defenders as they tried to force their way out of Manchester City’s relentless and lupine press, and return to stifle danger on the rare occasions Neymar threatened to push his way through . He seemed, at one point, to lose his temper a bit, reacting to provocations from PSG, unable to resist the temptation to meet fire with fire. He had already been warned; he may have been fired for his own benefit.
When the final whistle sounded, he walked cautiously toward the pitch, legs heavy. His teammates kissed in front of him. Guardiola’s coaching staff had arranged online to greet each player as they left the pitch. Rúben Dias was shirtless in the freezing cold of what is theoretically spring in Manchester, screaming at whoever he could find.
Manchester City waited more than a decade for this: the culmination of a project, the realization of a plan. Guardiola waited 10 years to return to the final of the competition he cherishes, for one, more than any other. His players, however, have waited much longer. They’ve waited their whole lives, in fact, for this one-off shot. And that’s what it meant at the time.