F.In all honesty, it could have taken all night. Do we have to stop? Did we really have to put an end to this? On a cool, quiet night at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester City produced an oddly hypnotic performance: a brilliantly flowing, delicately stitched, strangely gentle depiction of how to win a game by simply taking apart your opponent.
For the first 45 minutes, they stuck those fine, sharp fingernails into the guts of PSG. It was melodic in the flesh, the ball passed between the sky-blue shirts with a thud and a hiss, one of those phases when a team seems to be talking to itself.
City made 266 of 286 passes, had 11 shots and five corners. Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez were amazingly good. Sometimes it felt like some kind of high water mark had been reached. It would be easy to say that they played the best team in the world, but you know Bayern Munich will help and City will always present their own weaknesses as well. It was just a thing of its own, City in a moment of the perfect city, a team that was bred and grooved and shaped to be that thing, and find a perfect place.
Think for a moment of Gabriel Jesus’ winning goal scored by Silva, who provided an assist but it was also just a breathtaking moment of understated quality. Mahrez looked up to see a classic Pep Guardiola overload on his left. He started the perfect looping pass and pulled the defender into his arch as Silva had time to see all the moving figures and evoke the pillow volleyball touch inward as the ball caressed his instep.
Jesus was able to roll the ball freely across the line. Silva is an amazing soccer player in many ways, a tiny little slut with no fixed role, almost divorced from the club last summer and sometimes easy to overlook. But he can also do pretty much anything with a ball, like dribbling a madman, walking long and short and producing a touch here to keep in a glass on the mantelpiece, so decorative but also so viciously to the point.
Guardiola had chosen another surprising starting eleven. Without Phil Foden, Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish, there were fears that City might be missing some higher gears. While PSG has just set up this team. The one. The one with the players. Would City be outdone by these starry qualities?
Riyad Mahrez was fantastic on the ball against PSG. Photo: Matt McNulty / Manchester City FC / Getty Images
Not really. It’s impossible to watch Mahrez play like that and conclude that there could be more skilled, more iconic footballers somewhere, let alone on the same pitch. He’s simply the strongest Mahrez player in the world. His first touch was a soft little backspun trap of a curled Crossfield pass, a bravura touch, a touch that made gasps and coo. Here is a footballer who intimidates not by hitting his chest and yelling in the tunnel, but with his ability to catch the ball.
In the 18th minute he did something incredible by pulling a smooth little pass out of his imagination without looking at Ilkay Gündogan on the sidelines.
As for Paris, well, they were both captivating, like a fire eater or a juggler, and deeply disappointing. The idea of Mauricio Pochettino ready to walk around town and take up his post at Old Trafford seemed to be losing some air in the past 24 hours. He was here on business, walking masterfully in his tailored three-quarter coat and sombre suit like a handsome young Victorian cotton mill tycoon.
But what kind of team was that really? What did PSG have in this first half? Deep, persistent defense – and nutmegs.
Six minutes into Lionel Messi, Raheem Sterling threw in when he aggressively closed it. For a moment of this craft and miniature art, Sterling seemed to stumble away and for a second become a bystander who vaguely wandered toward Altrincham. Neymar did a couple of things. There was another nutmeg made by Kylian Mbappé, which then ran into Rodri’s knee, a knee made of a harder substance – Man Rock, Human Tree. The French media dubbed this Jerry-built all-star attack “l’union sacrée”. Well, not old bean yet.
PSG have always been likely to score at some point. You got into this game with not one but three shotguns over the fireplace. One of them would pop. The goal was sublime, scored by a sudden move to a shared, fast-paced attacking game, Messi, the Mbappé supplier.
City pushed back and equalized, the goal was scored by a fine pass from Rodri and pocketed by Sterling. And from then on, they would always win this game. It is a paradox of sport that a team that airs for 1 billion.
The Fiver: Sign up and receive our daily soccer email.
That is not to say that City are a better team than, say, Liverpool from the Klopp era, or even that they are the best team in England right now. But for an hour and a half they were a perfect version of themselves, the best Manchester city when Manchester City plays like that; and a kind of manifesto performance for the idea, the teachings of Guardiolaism. This was a moment when they found the perfect pitch.