Are Manchester City right to be considered favourites v PSG?

By Dan Larsen | 27 April 2021
Dan considers whether the odds on City progressing to thier first Champions League final are too short..

It’s been a hard, long slog for Manchester City to get here. Despite arguably being Europe’s most dominant side in domestic competitions over the past five seasons, only now have the blues returned to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, their first appearance in this round of the competition under Pep Guardiola.

Their previous three campaigns demonstrated how unforgiving football can be, especially on Europe’s biggest stage. Better sides than this current iteration couldn’t get over the proverbial hump in the quarterfinals. Their record-setting centurion season saw them crash out the hands of Liverpool over two legs. It was a gutting way for the best club side since Guardiola’s Barcelona sides to end their season, especially given the manner in which they were beaten over both legs.

The following season saw them lose in the most heartbreaking of fashions as Tottenham shot absolutely out of their minds in the second leg in Manchester. Heung-Min Son absolutely blitzed them with two absolutely ridiculous goals, forcing City to have to chase the game. Spurs also benefited from a VAR decision that refused to give a handball on a goal that almost certainly would have been disallowed under the new rules, forcing City to have to chase yet another goal late to go through. It finished with Raheem Sterling’s apparent winner at the death being rightly disallowed for a narrow offside. It may have been City’s toughest loss of the past decade.

Then there was last season against Lyon. Despite having just beaten the three-time reigning champions of the competition in Real Madrid the round before, City tumbled out in this round yet again in absolutely disastrous fashion. They were thrashed at the back on three different occasions, and several clear-cut scoring chances that should have won them the tie were missed. In fact, their worst miss of the game happened just seconds before Lyon dusted the tie. It was the perfect encapsulation of everything that plagued them throughout 2019-2020 which made it all the more frustrating to watch.

Even this season’s quarter-final wasn’t easy. City were fortunate in the first leg that a Jude Bellingham goal was wrongly disallowed for a foul call on him. Had that goal stood, the complexion of the tie could have been dramatically different. It was the kind of break that had typically gone against City in this competition. They also found themselves having to battle back in the second leg after trailing, something they’ve almost never done in the past two seasons in any competition. They certainly made life difficult for themselves against a very talented Dortmund team, but regardless of that they have now given themselves a chance to do something that they have not yet done: achieve European glory.

The blues now await a massive test in the semi-final. In fact, it’s a match-up that is more befitting of a final than a semi-final as City is set to face Paris Saint Germain. Though many regard City as favorites to win it all in the UCL, perhaps they shouldn’t be. Here’s a few reasons why.

City have played incredible football this season. However, this team does remain inferior to their two previous Premier League title teams under Guardiola. In particular, their lack of a clear-cut goal scoring threat out of their number nine role, as well as the inconsistency coming from their other forward players, could spell significant trouble at this stage of the competition. The team have had to fight tooth and nail to score goals this season, needing players who haven’t typically been goal scorers, like Ilkay Gundogan, to step up and come through for them. Though they have obviously done that more often than not since December (they’ve won all but two of their games in all competitions since their draw against West Brom in the middle of that month), it’s meant that the margin for error has become smaller for them in games, especially against the top sides.

UCL ties at this stage are often decided by world-class players meeting the moment. Virtually every winner of the competition since Chelsea’s upset win over Bayern Munich in 2012 have had at least one top player consistently scoring goals for them. Real Madrid’s sides had Cristano Ronaldo carrying the bulk of the load, especially in the quarters and semis. Barcelona had Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar in their winning side. Bayern Munich had Robert Lewandowski last season. Liverpool had Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah when they made it to the final in 2018 and won it the following summer in 2019. Even the runners-up last season, the team that City face now, had it then and have it today with Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. City have got to this stage of the competition without a clear-cut player in similar goal-scoring form to these players. When there’s so little to separate these sides, this can make the difference.

PSG’s front-line may also pose the best counter to City’s style of play. Dortmund were content to let City possess the ball for long stretches of play and hit them on the counter. Though they managed just two goals across the two legs, they looked a real threat every time they broke because of the incredible pace and talent that their attack possessed. PSG, under Mauricio Pochettino, could take a very similar approach to this tie. It’s how they approached both legs against Bayern Munich last round and it worked. There’s no better duo in the world right now to take advantage of space on counter attacks than Mbappe and Neymar.

City have also shown some cracks defensively in recent games. They’ve conceded at least a goal now in seven of their past 12 games in all competitions, though they did have a four-game stretch in the middle of that run where they kept clean sheets. Some of this undoubtedly can be put down to the heavy rotation in the side in recent games. However, they’ve also looked a bit vulnerable even when they’ve played at full strength. They’ve not been as quite as sharp in possession as they were when they were rolling teams in January and February, and it’s led to better opportunities for their opponents to take advantage of. Those kinds of mistakes won’t go unpunished against PSG.

Another thing that’s arguably working in PSG’s favour is that they’ve been here before. Much like City, they had struggled to make it past the quarter-finals of the competition for the longest time. However, that changed last season when they made it to the final and only narrowly lost to Bayern. They just vanquished that team in the previous round. This is City’s first trip to the semis since 2015-16 and this squad is almost entirely different from the one that made it there that season. That experience difference could matter.

Then there’s the Pochettino factor. His last three games at Spurs saw his teams sit back and counter City to death. There was a great deal of luck involved with their results in those ties (especially City missing chances), but they were emblematic of the kinds of games that City have too often left results on the pitch. The black magic at play in those previous games could strike again, especially given the clinical nature in front of goal that Mbappe and Neymar possess.

All of this, of course, isn’t to say that City aren’t capable of pulling this off. There isn’t much to separate the sides on paper. Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, and Riyad Mahrez are more then capable of getting them the goals that they need to win over two legs. It’s also the case that this team is much more defensively solid than they’ve been in previous campaigns, even if they’ve slipped a bit recently. PSG were very vulnerable at the back against Bayern last round despite sitting back, conceding 4.9 xG to 3.7 over the two legs which shows that opportunities can be made against their defence. City also have the advantage of being able to focus nearly all of their efforts on this competition by the time the semis kick-off while PSG are mired in a tight title race where they are still chasing the leaders.

Manchester City have finally given themselves the opportunity to win in Europe. We’ll see if they can achieve that in the weeks ahead.