There was a striking moment inside Schalke’s Veltins-Arena a little over two years ago. It was nearing midnight in Gelsenkirchen and Manchester City’s players looked shattered as they filed out on to the team coach.
Their manager, Pep Guardiola, collapsed into the arms of his chairman and sporting director, embracing Khaldoon Al Mubarak and Txiki Begiristain for some time. The evening had taken a lot out of City and their stressed boss on the touchline.
They had gone ahead that night but conceded two soft penalties in the space of seven minutes. Nicolas Otamendi was then sent off before a stunning late rally meant they headed home having won 3-2.
It felt a big deal, and certainly dramatic, yet that was only in the last 16 and against a team they walloped 7-0 in the second leg. Schalke flirted with relegation from the Bundesliga that season.
There is absolutely no way City should have arrived in the final five minutes of the first leg behind, reliant on individual genius to bail them out. Schalke were not very good.
But that was City in Europe. They were making even the simplest of tasks appear trying and the frenzied seven minutes — where Guardiola watched his mentally frazzled defence fall to pieces — was indicative of why they were not progressing into the proper latter stages. See Lyon last August for further evidence.
It is why the past month, regardless of what happens in Tuesday night’s tantalising clash with Paris Saint-Germain, serves as tangible growth for Guardiola. Why he dealt with Monday’s build-up to this semi-final second leg with exuberance. Why he is no longer referring to City as the kids of this competition.
They came from a goal down to beat PSG last Wednesday after performing the same trick in Dortmund in the previous round. PSG had outplayed them in the opening 45 minutes but here City have two away goals in their pocket.
— Paris Saint-Germain (@PSG_English) May 3, 2021
Guardiola has witnessed reactions from his squad, and while accepting that Neymar and Kylian Mbappe can take games away from anyone, does not expect brittle minds to be their undoing on Tuesday evening.
He said: ‘It belongs to the players, the desire to do something for all of us, to be remembered forever, to make a step forward. We are going to control our emotions. This is what I’m looking for and try to convince them that this is the best way to win.
‘The emotions… a game can be completely different to what you expect. You have to understand this will be a big battle, there are moments to suffer. But I am pretty sure we are going to react well, do what we have to do and impose ourselves as much as possible. It comes from inside, they have to visualise what they have to do.
‘They must stick together in the bad moments and suffer together. Go out there and do what we’ve done this season, which means in the bad moments stay calm, take the ball and try to regain our momentum. I don’t expect for one second we’ll play like that second half in Paris for 90 minutes.’
Real Madrid will probably have something to say about this but PSG represent City’s sternest test in the Champions League since Liverpool in the 2018 quarter-finals, purely by virtue of their explosiveness in the final third.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side, who Guardiola has not briefed his squad on to the same extent as last week, are more dangerous away from home, scoring three at Bayern Munich and four at Barcelona.
City expect to concede at some point, although Guardiola will want his midfield, specifically Rodri, to manage the game and make sure it does not descend into a glorified ping-pong match. PSG’s wrists move much faster than anyone else on the continent.
‘The second leg of the semi-final is always the toughest game, more than the final,’ Guardiola said.
He would say that, of course, given his two victories in the showpiece — both at Barcelona — and five semi-final defeats.
‘When I arrive in these stages I’m more calm than before,’ Guardiola added. ‘I try to enjoy it. The players are training well, everyone wants to play and help.
Riyad Mahrez scored the winner from a free-kick to grab a crucial lead ahead of the second leg
‘We’ve been looking for this moment for many, many years. We spoke a lot today about who we are — just about us, us and us. There are a lot of things for us to be optimistic about.
‘Paris are an extraordinary team. They have players who can create something for themselves and win the game. We know that. I don’t want to be too concerned with their qualities. We know how good they are but we know how good we can be.
‘Unfortunately, it’s just words… tomorrow at 8pm we have to be there and do it again.’