When the Champions League draw was made for the quarterfinals and semifinals back on March 19, and it looked as though Paris Saint-Germain would have to beat Bayern Munich and Manchester City in order to reach the final, Kylian Mbappe told his teammates that they would do it. Of course, going against Barcelona and then the two best teams in Europe was daunting. It was the extreme opposite of last season, too, when the Parisians failed at the last hurdle after having knocked out Borussia Dortmund, Atalanta and RB Leipzig on their way to face Bayern in Lisbon.
This time, if they are to do it again and get another shot at winning the Holy Grail, they will have to do it the hard way. The super hard way, even. But PSG have believed in their abilities from Day 1 of this season, and now they have a chance to show it.
Sunday was a team day off for PSG, though most of the team watched Man City dominate Tottenham on their way to a fourth consecutive League Cup trophy. The game didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know about Pep Guardiola’s team, though they did see where they could hurt Guardiola’s team. As good as City are, Paris have the talent — in Marco Verratti and especially Neymar and Mbappe — to cause them so many problems.
Against City’s aggressive press, you need the courage to play out from the back; Verratti and Neymar (and, to a lesser extent, Leo Paredes) are perfect for soaking up the pressure, beating that press and retaining possession, something Spurs couldn’t manage at Wembley. Equally, City’s tendency to dominate time on the ball and territory that Mbappe’s pace will be a constant threat on the counter. His ability to run in behind the Premier League’s leaders’ high defensive line will be one of the keys to this tie.
The French forward is maybe in the best form of his life. His future is still uncertain in Paris, but there is a growing feeling that he’ll stay at the club where he’s been unstoppable for the past two months. He’s scored 19 goals in his last 14 games with Paris (all competitions) with one hat-trick and seven braces, including one last weekend against Metz.
Facing Man City is also a reminder of one of the greatest games of Mbappe’s career. In February 2017, aged just 18 and making his first-ever start in the Champions League, Mbappe ran riot with a goal and an assist for AS Monaco. Despite the 5-3 round of 16 first-leg defeat — Monaco qualified for the quarterfinals after winning the second leg 3-1 at home with another Mbappe goal — that game was the making of the France forward. He’s not forgotten it, and Guardiola has not forgotten either.
Overall, PSG’s preparations for the game have been quite smooth considering the events of the past 10 days or so. Off the pitch, the decision by PSG’s owners to reject the Super League project has united the club even more. The dressing room — including Pochettino, of course, who is big on traditions — really appreciated the hierarchy’s stance. The sympathy towards the club has grown massively worldwide. On top of that, another epic Champions League tie and the possibility of reaching the final for a second straight season is in the balance as well.
On the pitch, as explained above, the faith and belief are there. In private, Pochettino was reminding someone the other day that his PSG side beat Bayern at the Allianz Arena in March with their second-choice right-back, fourth-choice centre-back and third-choice left-back!
On Wednesday, and probably for the first time since he took over, the manager has his entire first-team squad available for selection with the exception of Juan Bernat, who has been missing all season. The return to training of Marquinhos, whose last game for the first leg against Bayern three weeks ago, was a big boost. The centre-back is more than just a captain for PSG; he’s also one of the best defenders in Europe and has the leadership qualities required for such a challenge, too.
People might consider Man City the favourites for this tie, and that would suit PSG as much as Pochettino’s familiarity with Guardiola: he’s the manager he has faced the most in his managerial career. (From 18 meetings, Pochettino has won three times and Guardiola 10 times, with five draws.) Yet Pochettino’s victories have been notable: his Tottenham side famously eliminated Man City in the quarterfinals two seasons ago after an incredible second leg at the Etihad (4-3, 0-1 in the first leg).
These games between PSG and City have the potential to be blockbusters. The PSG vs. Bayern clashes in the previous round were arguably two of the best games of the season in all competitions; PSG vs. City could be even better.
But back to Mbappe. On the eve of the last-16 first leg clash in Barcelona, the striker told Pochettino he would win the game for PSG at the Camp Nou. And he did. When it comes to his assertion that PSG can finish what they’ve started in the Champions League this season, he might well be right there, too.