As Manchester City has slipped down the Premier League, it has progressed further than ever in the Champions League.
Though only fourth-best in England this season, City is now among the top four in Europe’s most elite competition.
City qualified for the Champions League semifinals for the first time Tuesday, with Kevin de Bruyne securing a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain to build on a 2-2 draw from the first leg.
PSG’s fourth successive exit in the quarterfinals leaves the Qatari-owned club still chasing a much sought-after European Cup. Instead, City is celebrating another landmark in the club’s transformation in the eight years since itself coming under Middle Eastern ownership – from Abu Dhabi.
“It’s an amazing night for us,” said goalkeeper Joe Hart, the only player in Tuesday’s squad who joined City before the 2008 takeover by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour. “We’ve worked hard in this competition.
“I’ve been here since the start of this Champions League run and we did struggle to start with, but we started to piece together results and this speaks volumes.”
The 3-2 aggregate wins ensures Manuel Pellegrini, who reached the semifinals as Villarreal coach 10 years ago, can still turn City into European champions before handing over power to Pep Guardiola in May after three years in charge.
This was a night when rival strikers both misfired. Sergio Aguero missed a penalty for City in the first half and PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic had two free kicks saved and a goal disallowed for offside.
As well as twice denying Ibrahimovic, Hart also tipped over Thiago Silva’s close-range downward header over and spread himself to prevent Edinson Cavani from scoring a late equalizer after De Bruyne’s goal.
“Both this evening and last week in Paris we weren’t clinical enough, we weren’t efficient,” PSG coach Laurent Blanc said through a translator. “City is a good team, not a particularly spectacular team, but they are efficient and they get the job done … imposing their physicality without creating many opportunities.”
De Bruyne didn’t waste his opportunity in the 76th minute. After one touch to take the ball past Cavani, De Bruyne curled a shot through a crowded penalty area that took a slight deflection before landing into the bottom corner of the net.
The energetic midfielder was discarded by Chelsea in 2014 but City signed him from Wolfsburg last year for 75 million euros (around $85 million). The Belgian is proving that was a shrewd move, scoring three goals in four games since returning from a two-month lay-off – including one in the first leg last week – as City has enjoyed an upturn in fortunes.
Despite failing to reclaim top spot in the Premier League, 2012 and 2014 champion City has recently strengthened its place in the top four Champions League qualification places. Winning this year would guarantee a place in the competition next season.
Two away goals gave City the slight edge as it hosted PSG in front of a 53,039 crowd in its first Champions League quarterfinal at the Etihad Stadium. As has become customary this season, City fans drowned out UEFA’s Champions League anthem with jeers before kickoff, a protest against Financial Fair Play sanctions.
With City enjoying its best Champions League run, the fans could be booing all the way to the final in Milan in May.
City coped without captain Vincent Kompany at the heart of the defense, with center backs Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala holding off Ibrahimovic and Cavani.
“I was very happy for both of them,” Pellegrini said of his defensive duo. “I don’t think they had bad seasons. Maybe they had some individual mistakes in some games … they have faced a lot of criticism.”
PSG can still end the season with a treble, by adding the French Cup and League Cup to the league title easily already secured last month for a fourth successive year. PSG leads the French league by 28 points – a sign of the lack of competition Blanc’s side faces at home.
“Whether it’s a problem we play in Ligue 1, I don’t know,” Blanc said as he reflected on another season when PSG failed to make an impact in Europe.