This is the moment Pep Guardiola knew the mission was (almost) accomplished. As Riyad Mahrez celebrated his second goal and Manchester City’s in their Champions League semi-final victory over Paris Saint-Germain, Guardiola turned away from the pitch, looked for Ferran Soriano in the directors box and clenched fist nodded. the general manager of the club.
The pair, who have twice enjoyed Champions League glory with Barcelona, have both been hired by City owners in Abu Dhabi to replicate their success at Camp Nou in Manchester’s blue half. It hasn’t been easy to navigate this competition during Soriano’s nine years at the Etihad and Guardiola, but that savvy look from manager to CEO said it: City are now one step away from realizing their goal. ultimate dream of lifting the European Cup. after a comfortable 2-0 victory (4-1 in total) over a poorly disciplined and surpassed PSG.
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In order for the mission to be accomplished for City, Guardiola, Soriano and, of course, owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, they will need to beat either Chelsea or Real Madrid in Istanbul next month to win the Champions League for the first time. But City had never made it past the semi-finals before – they lost 1-0 overall to Real Madrid under Manuel Pellegrini in their only previous appearance at this point in 2016 – so they broke new ground by reaching the final.
And for Guardiola, not having reached a Champions League final since 2011, this success ends his sterile race, only Louis van Gaal and Jupp Heynckes (14) bridging a greater gap between the finals of the competition.
“It’s for all of us and for the club,” Guardiola said. “I’m incredibly proud and my first thoughts are with the players who haven’t played today.
“They all deserved to play, everyone made a contribution and now it’s time to take advantage. We have to win the championship and we have two or three weeks to prepare for the final.
“We fought together and we are in the Champions League final and those are fine words.
“People think it’s easy to get to the Champions League final. Getting to the final now makes sense of what we’ve been doing for the past four or five years.”
City’s progress to the final, however, will not be welcomed by all. With the Abu Dhabi regime having spent more than £ 1 billion on players since buying the club in 2008, old charges of financial doping will once again be aired.
This is a club, of course, that were initially banned from the Champions League this season by UEFA for breaking the rules of financial fair play. City managed to overturn the ban on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, so if they win the competition next month, they’ll see it as a double triumph after winning both off the field and over him.
But while City’s spending and contacts with UEFA are well documented, they aren’t the only club spending fortunes in pursuit of a dream. PSG reached last season’s final after taking a similar path to the greatest club football game, while every Champions League winner since Porto’s surprise 2004 success did so after investing heavily in their teams.
The only Champions League fairy tales these days are the ones that got paid.
City certainly had to take their meds over the years in this competition. In their first Champions League assaults they struggled to get past the group stage and, when they finally did, found themselves knocked out two years in a row in humiliating defeats to Barcelona in the round of 16.
There have also been shocking outings to Monaco and Lyon, and failures to overcome Premier League rivals Liverpool and Spurs in memorable quarter-finals. On each of these occasions, Guardiola has been rightly criticized for his tactical errors and controversial selections. The man Sheikh Mansour hired to deliver the Champions League just seemed unable to replicate his Barcelona magic.
But this season it’s been a different story, with the victory breaking an English record for consecutive wins in the competition with seven. Manchester United (1965-66), Leeds (1969-70) and Arsenal (2005-06) had some. previously scored six in a row.
City went through a group of Porto, Marseille and Olympiakos before doing an easy job of Borussia Monchengladbach in the round of 16. Borussia Dortmund then scared City before falling by the wayside in the quarters and then came PSG – winner of defending champions Bayern Munich in the last round and led by the superstar duo of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
But after a difficult first half in Paris in the first leg, City dominated the draw in the 135 minutes that followed, notably blowing up the French champions in the second half last week at the Parc des Princes. Mahrez, born on the outskirts of Paris, scored three of City’s four goals in the draw and his brace in that game will go down in club history as the one who won a very first Champions League final.
The lack of supporters denied City and their supporters the chance to properly celebrate this feat. But while the semi-finals tend to be tense and wary, this one was only unpredictable in terms of the weather, with snow and hail providing an unusual backdrop in early May.
It was also comfortable for City as they were by far the top team. PSG did not have a Plan B beyond their toothless side passing game, especially without Mbappe, who was not listed due to a calf injury. Even from the early stages, Guardiola’s players managed to manage the tie in second gear.
City’s full-backs were exceptional, with Ruben Dias signing in the summer with and left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko enjoying his best performance for the club in their biggest game. His run and his cross in preparation for Mahrez’s first goal set the tone for City’s victory. Mahrez’s second was at the end of another breakaway, with the Algerian converting Phil Foden’s cross at close range, and the 2-0 margin could have been much larger.
But City didn’t need to push any further, especially with PSG losing the lead – their lack of discipline resulted in a red card for Angel Di Maria for sending Fernandinho off in the 69th minute. At this point the game was in the sack and City could prepare for the final and that occasion on May 29 is now the only thing that matters to Guardiola and everyone at the club.
If the Spaniard can guide City to glory in Istanbul, he will have done everything he was hired to do in 2016. But he hasn’t done it yet. Chelsea or Real Madrid will both back each other to win too, but City are the best team left in the Champions League and are now only 90 minutes away from winning the holy grail that has eluded them so far.