It was the moment that Pep Guardiola knew it was mission (almost) accomplished. As Riyad Mahrez celebrated his and Manchester City’s second goal of their Champions League semifinal second-leg victory against Paris Saint-Germain, Guardiola turned away from the pitch, sought out Ferran Soriano in the directors’ box and, with his fist clenched, nodded at the club’s chief executive.
The two men, who twice enjoyed Champions League glory with Barcelona, were both hired by City’s Abu Dhabi owners to replicate their success at Camp Nou in the blue half of Manchester. It has not been plain sailing in this competition during Soriano’s nine years at the Etihad and Guardiola’s five, but that knowing look from the manager to the CEO said it all — City are now one step from achieving their ultimate dream of lifting the European Cup following a comfortable 2-0 win (4-1 on aggregate) over an ill-disciplined and outplayed PSG.
For it to be mission accomplished for City, Guardiola, Soriano and, of course, owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, they will have to beat Chelsea or Real Madrid in Istanbul next month to win the Champions League for the first time. But City had never gone beyond the semifinals before — they lost 1-0 on aggregate against Real Madrid under Manuel Pellegrini in their only previous appearance at this stage in 2016 — so they have broken new ground by reaching the final.
And for Guardiola, having not reached a Champions League final since 2011, this success ends his own barren run, with only Louis van Gaal and Jupp Heynckes (14 years) bridging a bigger gap between managing in finals in the competition.
“It is for all of us and the club,” Guardiola said. “I’m incredibly proud and my first thoughts are with the players who didn’t play today.
“They all deserved to play, everyone has made a contribution and now it is time to enjoy it. We have to win the league and we have two or three weeks to prepare for the final.
“We fought together and we’re in the final of the Champions League and those are nice words.
“People believe it’s easy to arrive in the final of the Champions League. Getting to the final now makes sense of what we have done in the past four or five years.”
City’s progression to the final will not be met with universal acclaim, however. With the Abu Dhabi regime spending over £1 billion on players since buying the club in 2008, the old accusations of financial doping will be aired once again.
This is a club, of course, which was initially banned from this season’s Champions League by UEFA for breaking Financial Fair Play rules. City successfully overturned the ban on appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, so if they win the competition next month, they will regard it as a double triumph having won off the pitch as well as on it.
But while City’s spending and brushes with UEFA are well-documented, they are not the only club to spend fortunes chasing a dream. PSG reached last season’s final having taken a similar path to the biggest game in club football, while all the winners of the Champions League since Porto’s surprise success in 2004 have done so having invested heavily in their squads.
Nowadays, the only fairytales in the Champions League are the ones that have been paid for.
City have certainly had to take their medicine over the years in this competition, though. In their early assaults on the Champions League, they struggled to get beyond the group stage and when they eventually did, found themselves eliminated two years running in humbling defeats against Barcelona in the Round of 16.
There were also shocking exits to Monaco and Lyon, and failures to overcome Premier League rivals Liverpool and Spurs in momentous quarterfinals. On each of those occasions, Guardiola was rightly criticised for tactical mistakes and controversial selections. The man hired by Sheikh Mansour to deliver the Champions League just seemed unable to reproduce his Barcelona magic.
But this season, it has been a different story, with this 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 previously managed six in a row.
City cruised through a group of Porto, Marseille, and Olympiakos before making easy work of Borussia Monchengladbach in the Round of 16. Borussia Dortmund then gave City a scare before falling by the wayside in the quarters and then came PSG — conquerors of reigning 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 this two-legged tie over the next 135 minutes, notably blowing the French champions away 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 tie and his brace in this game will go down in the club’s history as the one which secured a first-ever Champions League final.
The absence of supporters denied City and their supporters the chance to celebrate the achievement properly. But while semifinals tend to be tense and cagey affairs, 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 because they were by far the superior team. PSG had no Plan B beyond their toothless sideways passing game, especially without Mbappe, who did not feature due to a calf injury. Even from the early stages, Guardiola’s players were able to manage the tie in second gear.
City’s back-four was outstanding, summer signing Ruben Dias starring and left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko enjoying his best performance for the club in their biggest game. His run and cross in the build-up to Mahrez’s opening 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 from close range, and the 2-0 margin could have been far greater.
But City didn’t need to push for more, especially with PSG losing their heads — their lack of discipline resulting in a red card for Angel Di Maria for kicking out at Fernandinho on 69 minutes. By that stage, the game was in the bag and City could prepare for the final and that occasion, on May 29, is now the only thing that matters to Guardiola and everyone connected to the club.
If the Spaniard can guide City to glory in Istanbul, he will have done everything he was hired to do back in 2016. But it is not job done just yet. Chelsea or Real Madrid will both back themselves to win too, but City are the best team left in the Champions League and are now just 90 minutes away from securing the Holy Grail which has eluded them thus far.