The two heavyweights have made huge strides on and off the field in the past decade and have taken differing approaches to chasing success
Football logic suggests that sooner or later, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain will win the Champions League. With two of the richest ownership structures in world football, squads overflowing with talent and a yearning for the one trophy that they are both missing, a lack of European success remains a major frustration for two clubs that have been the most successful domestically on either side of the Channel in recent years.
In the past decade of serious attempts, neither has managed to dislodge the traditional European elite by securing the great prize. City boss Pep Guardiola has said in the past that his club lack the experience and knowledge of the established giants and a similar suggestion could have been labelled about PSG.
As a reason for underperforming, that excuse has probably now expired with both clubs becoming regulars in the latter knockout stages – City reaching last season’s final and PSG the year before.
Pigeonholing their disappointment would be too simplistic as the two clubs have differing strategies about how they believe they can bring success but they could do worse than look at each other for the inspiration to get that extra edge.
There are aspects where City are clearly stronger, underlined by two significant victories over PSG in the knockout stages in the past six years. Chiefly, it’s been about putting their belief in a trusted coach to deliver.
The Premier League champions identified Guardiola as their biggest target long before he came to the Etihad Stadium, believing his philosophy could transform the club. Not delivering the Champions League is his only failing so far, and will continue to give ammunition to his critics until he does so. It could even blemish his legacy should it continue to elude him, as the Catalan himself admits.
But his methods have delivered a precise, tactical plan that permeates the club from the academy to the first team and has given City that platform for success. The buck stops with Guardiola, which is why he took the heat for last season’s final defeat to Chelsea, and why he was able to turn it around with a dominant and deserved victory at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
PSG, meanwhile, are on their sixth manager in eight years. The previous five all won Ligue 1 but were impatiently axed after failing to land the Champions League, including Thomas Tuchel who went on to win it just five months after he was dumped from the Parc des Princes. It would be no surprise if current incumbent Mauricio Pochettino would be moved on at the end of the season if he won Ligue 1 should there be no European success.
But the knock-on effect is that PSG’s players have not always responded to the authority of their coach, particularly with so many big names at the club. Losing home and away to City in last season’s semi-finals, on each occasion Pochettino’s players lost their composure as the ties slipped away.
Idrissa Gueye was given a straight red card for a dangerous tackle on Ilkay Gundogan in the first leg, Angel Di Maria suffered the same for kicking Fernandinho off the ball and is not available for Tuesday’s clash. Marco Verratti and Presnel Kimpembe could easily have gone the same way as PSG lost all discipline.
Managing big players such as Di Maria, Neymar and Lionel Messi requires a big-name coach to coax the best out of them and Pochettino risks being on the back foot when he makes decisions such as substituting the six-time Ballon d’Or winner earlier this month.
There is a recurring difficulty of handling the squad when the knockout stages of the Champions League come around. In many seasons, PSG have had Ligue 1 wrapped up by mid-spring and face the dilemma of whether to rest players for big games. Do so and coaches are accused of upsetting their rhythm and piling the pressure on to perform in big Champions League matches but keeping them playing risks injury and tiredness and criticism for failing to prioritise.
Guardiola doesn’t have that problem with the intensity and challenge of winning the Premier League meaning he rarely has any alternative but to go full strength for every match, although he does have a strong squad to rotate. His complaint is that he doesn’t have a goalscoring match-winner in his team to turn the tight matches in his favour when games are decided by small margins.
City suggested for a long time that they would be happy to take Messi, should he ever leave Barcelona, but when the football world was rocked when he finally quit Camp Nou, he headed straight to Paris to join a squad that already had a superstar frontline of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. And that was after they had given big contracts to fellow free agents Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Georginio Wijnaldum, adding experience and a record of success to the squad.
City, meanwhile, desperate for a striker after allowing Sergio Aguero to leave on a free transfer, failed to buy a replacement – missing out on Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo and being left short of options. They could do worse than to follow PSG’s lead in the transfer market, particularly if they are to join a fight for Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland, by being unassailable in their pursuit of a striker.
But it’s not just on the pitch where they can look to each other to learn a thing or two. City could have been out of the Champions League altogether – serving the second year of a UEFA ban had the original decision not been overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. PSG meanwhile had already been successful in stopping a fresh investigation into alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play rules.
Club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is now the new European Club Association chairman, after choosing to avoid being dragged into the Super League debacle along with City and 11 other European clubs. Some would argue that he is now the most powerful man in football while City’s hierarchy remain on the margins.
That will help with the long-term growth of the club but obviously the Champions League has to be won on the pitch. It would be no surprise to see either or both of these clubs in St Petersburg in eight months’ time with their quality, strength and desire for the Champions League.
For now the wait continues for two clubs expected to win the biggest trophy available, but with their ambitions frustrated.