Riyad Mahrez scored twice as Man City beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 to claim a 4-1 aggregate win and reach the Champions League final for the first time; Ruben Dias led a defensive masterclass and Phil Foden produced a coming-of-age display
Wednesday 5 May 2021 11:56, UK
Even on the one occasion Ruben Dias went to ground a little early, it did not matter. John Stones and Oleksandr Zinchenko were there to back him up, hurling their bodies in the way of Neymar's shot then embracing as if they were celebrating a goal.
It was a moment to sum up Manchester City's performance on the night they finally claimed their place in a Champions League final. Bravery. Steeliness. Defiance. It was all there as Pep Guardiola's side put themselves on the brink of history.
So too was the attacking brilliance, of course. The two goals, both converted by Riyad Mahrez, were superbly constructed and ruthlessly dispatched. A 4-1 aggregate scoreline against a side that reached last season's final and knocked out Bayern Munich and Barcelona this year shows the extent of City's threat.
But what makes this iteration of Guardiola's City so special is that they can do it all. The combination of attacking excellence and defensive resolve has taken them to the brink of Premier League glory and it could now land them the prize they covet most.
There were only five minutes on the clock at the Etihad Stadium when Stones pulled off City's first block of the night, getting his body behind an early Neymar effort. By the end of it, they had made nine - nearly twice as many as in any other game all season.
Time and again, just as it seemed the net might be about to bulge, a blue-shirted defender would appear seemingly out of nowhere. Paris Saint-Germain had 14 shots over the course of the 90 minutes but Ederson didn't have to make a single save.
Five of City's nine blocks were made by Dias or Stones and that was not all they did right. In fact, they hardly put a foot wrong between them. There was no Kylian Mbappe, but their performance is no less impressive for that. It is now 16 clean sheets in 24 games the centre-backs have started together.
Stones' resurgence has been remarkable but it's Dias who has transformed City and his leadership was evident throughout on Tuesday night. Even when Ander Herrera's drilled cross struck him in the head from a distance of only a few yards, he was immediately back on his feet cajoling those around him.
Dias and Stones were not the only ones who made Neymar's evening a miserable one. At right-back, Kyle Walker was outstanding, hounding the Brazilian whenever he popped up in his zone and sometimes chasing him further than that too.
Nobody made more tackles than he did and the 30-year-old also ranked top for interceptions and ball recoveries. There were towering headers in his own box and lung-busting runs up field.
There was plenty of that from the man on the opposite side too. Zinchenko was preferred to Joao Cancelo by Guardiola and his faith was rewarded. The Ukrainian played a crucial role in the opening goal, running onto Ederson's stunning pass then picking out Kevin de Bruyne, and defended with discipline and devotion throughout.
Zinchenko was not the only personnel change from the first leg. In midfield, Guardiola opted for Fernandinho over Rodri and again the decision proved the right one.
The midfielder showed his experience by maintaining his composure and keeping his team-mates calm as PSG tried to provoke them. He also showed his knack for fouling without getting booked. It may be cynical but it's what City needed against Neymar and the rest.
Mahrez was Manchester City's match-winner, scoring for the third consecutive Champions League game, but Phil Foden was arguably even more impressive. This may well go down as a coming-of-age performance from the brilliant 20-year-old.
Foden is enjoying his best season yet in terms of appearances, goals and assists and there was plenty more evidence in this latest showing of a player who is well and truly at home on the biggest stages.
The assist for Mahrez's second goal was his most notable contribution, making him the first Manchester City player to reach double figures for goals and assists in all competitions this season, but it was a moment in the first half which best summed him up.
It came when he received a Bernardo Silva pass with his back to goal near the centre circle. The giant figure of Presnel Kimpembe was on to him in a flash, but Foden rode his challenge then skipped past Leandro Paredes before accelerating forward and picking out Zinchenko in the PSG box.
Mauricio Pochettino had clearly instructed his players to close down Foden as quickly as possible having seen just how elusive he can be in the first leg but the youngster couldn't be stopped.
He almost put De Bruyne through on goal with a delightful scooped pass in the first half and in the second his runs from City's left flank caused PSG more problems.
The second goal came from there and there were scoring chances for him too - most notably when he collected Fernandinho's flick with an elegant swivel then saw his low shot saved by the advancing Keylor Navas.
Foden was denied but there was no chance of the same happening to City.
Not this time, anyway.
Manchester City have endured a difficult relationship with the Champions League in recent years.
Last season, the journey ended with a 3-1 defeat to unfancied Lyon at the quarter-final stage. Before that it was Pochettino's Tottenham; before that Liverpool and Monaco.
Each defeat brought criticism of Guardiola and accusations of overthinking tactics but there will be none of that now.
He had worked out how to exploit PSG's defensive weaknesses in wide areas but there was refreshing simplicity in the manner in which his side kept them at bay at the other end.
As Guardiola knows, however, having not reached a Champions League final since he last won it with Barcelona in 2011, there is nothing simple about getting this far let alone lifting the trophy.
"People believe it's easy to arrive in the final of the Champions League," he said in his post-match interview. "But you can be out for little details.
"United won a title because of John Terry's slip, and won [the Champions League] in the last minute against Bayern Munich.
"Real Madrid won a title against Atletico in the 93rd minute. It's a competition that is so difficult and something in the stars is involved in that."
When Stones and Zinchenko are celebrating blocks like goals and Foden is charging fearlessly through the midfield, it is tempting to wonder whether the stars might be aligning for Manchester City.