MANCHESTER, England – Manchester City staff and substitutes have not been able to sit still for the final minutes despite the game being sealed and a place in the final. They pulsed with energy. They roared at every bad challenge. They asked the referee to take action for any violation. They cheered every pass that was completed.
As the clock ticked into stoppage time, they fretted and fidgeted when Paris St.-Germain won a free kick within sight of Éderson’s goal. They cheered as it sailed past. The voice of Mark Sertori, the club’s longtime masseur, roared over the empty Etihad Stadium. “No chance,” he called. There were no more than 30 seconds left and PSG had to score three times.
There was nothing to worry about for the rational brain. Two goals by Riad Mahrez had made the result beyond doubt. The distant prospect of a PSG revival was completely gone when Ángel Di María, his Argentine wing, was expelled and duly dismissed in Fernandinho. The city had been home and dry since then.
But the rational brain falls silent when the stakes are so high. Despite what City has achieved over the past 13 years, City has gone from being stubborn weights to being a pre-eminent force in English football, soon becoming the winner of three of the last four Premier League titles and five of the last 10 Champions League so become something of an open wound.
Like PSG, City was built with significant effort to win the Champions League. Not in the sense that it’s the final frontier of the game, a team’s greatest ambition. For City – at least this iteration of City – this competition is the ultimate purpose.
That’s why Pep Guardiola, the outstanding coach of his generation, was hired. That’s why the people who hired him – his former colleagues in Barcelona, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano – were hired. For this reason, he has been given the opportunity to put together a squad that meets all of his requirements in a training facility that enables him to work with absolute serenity.
Of course, football doesn’t work according to a formula, no matter how much money and expertise goes into its construction. They learned that the hard way in City.
The Premier League’s long slog has proven to be easy to master compared to the Champions League chimera. As Guardiola said, there is “something in the stars” in this competition and it’s hard to argue: he’s blamed either a strong Bayern Munich team for most of the past 10 years or most of Manchester City’s exquisite Brilliance, but this will be his first appearance in the finals of this tournament since 2011.
The disappointments were astounding in their diversity and convincing in their unpredictability. Under Guardiola, City was caught cold by a youthful and unannounced Monaco and then blown up by a heaving and hungry Liverpool. Tottenham was heartbroken and Lyon messed up their brains.
And now, after a decade of trying, it broke that ceiling. What this game means for football is a question that the sport – despite what City and PSG fans are opposed to – has to keep thinking about.
After all, two teams were involved, supported by the unhindered wealth of the Gulf States and vying for a place in the most glamorous and exclusive club competition in football. It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that the motives behind their current primacy aren’t just athletic.
This may have been the first time they’ve met on such a great stage, but the simple economics – especially after the pandemic – suggests it won’t be the last. They’ve spent their money differently, PSG on individuals and City on the broader roster, but they’ve spent it in sums that few, if any, of their rivals can match.
While geopolitics, morals, and the wider implications matter, they don’t matter to the players and staff tasked with getting Manchester City to where it wants to be – not right now. This is not the story that they belong to, not for them.
Instead, it is a story of personal ambition, childhood dreams and professional satisfaction, of decades of commitment that is not rewarded by a lucrative contract or a high-profile transfer, but by the long-awaited chance to achieve what is in almost every way the high point of her career.
So Kevin De Bruyne came off the field a few minutes before the end, his face flushed and his body swaying, and dropped into a chair. Almost alone, he did not spend the last few minutes yelling and barking and chivelling and censuring: there was not a drop of energy left in his body.
He’d spent everything chasing PSG defenders as they tried to get their way out of Manchester City’s relentless lupine press, and on the rare occasions where Neymar threatened to find a way to push back to obliterate the threat. At some point he just seemed to lose his nerve a little and reacted to the provocations from PSG. He couldn’t resist the temptation to meet fire with fire. He had already been warned; It may have been removed for his own benefit.
When the final whistle sounded, he walked cautiously with heavy legs to the field. His teammates hugged in front of him. Guardiola’s coaching staff had lined up to greet every single player as they came off the field. Rúben Dias was shirtless in the bitter cold of theoretical spring in Manchester, howling in front of everyone he could find.
Manchester City has waited more than a decade for this: the culmination of a project, the realization of a plan. Guardiola has waited 10 years to return to the final of the competition, which, for one, he appreciates more than any other. However, its players have waited much longer. They have actually waited their entire lives for that one shot. And that is exactly what it meant at that moment.