THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

First half bad, second half good

It's a tough gig, writing about football. You try and keep things fresh, try and stay away from dead, empty clichés. And then a game comes along that couldn't be more "a game of two halves" if they'd actually changed sport at half-time. The struggle is real.
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And think of all the wasted content! We are haunted by the ghosts of lost banter. 45 minutes to prepare the perfect accusation of fraudulence - "Fraudiola", "Riyad Meh-rez", "Phil Faux-den" - and then 45 minutes to watch it all go to waste.
Oh, the game? Well, it turns out that disrupting City's possession game is very, very hard work, and if a team is going to do it for a half they need to get more than one goal out of it. The story of this season has been Guardiola working out, slightly ahead of everybody else, that covid-football is going to be a tired, leggy business, and coming up with a way of playing that nobody can keep up with for an entire 90 minutes.
We were relaxed. At half time we spoke about who we are. We adjusted some little, stupid things, not important because it depends on the personality of the players. … If we lose, we lose. If we don't get to the final we will try again next season, but try to play our game like we spoke without the ball. What is our identity with our ball and without the ball? Go out there and try to do it. And they were fantastic.
Or perhaps, if we're looking for something a little more heroic than possession, the story of City's season, exemplified here, has really been the story of Rúben Dias. He sees your Haaland vs. Mbappé arguments, and he does not care for them. And while there's clearly a lot more to top level defending than running around shouting "come on!" at your colleagues, City really had been missing it.
PSG had the first half, but more often than not it was Dias and friends who kept them at bay and kept Ederson covered. City have conceded just four goals in eleven European games this season, a stinginess just as impressive as any attacking pattern. And if Gareth Southgate hasn't made quiet enquiries as to whether Dias would mind slipping into a Harry Maguire mask and keeping John Stones company throughout the summer, he's a fool. War with Portugal a small price to pay for a reliable centre-back partnership.
But maybe this was Phil Foden's story. Or İlkay Gündoğan's. Or Kevin De Bruyne's, or Riyad Mahrez's… you get the point. This wasn't just a good performance: with its shape, its narrative arc, it had the feel of something definitive. Maybe even historical. Obviously there's still a second leg and then, perhaps, a final to come, but football, a clever student, does a lot of its history-writing in advance. The groundwork is laid.
If City do win the competition, if these players get the job done, we'll be talking about this comeback for a long, long time. And if they don't, well, the good thing about fraud jokes is they don't really have a sell-by date. Banter delayed is never, ever banter denied.

'We cannot play shy again' - Guardiola

First half good, second half awful

The obvious joke - and oh, how we love an obvious joke - would be something like: "You can take the manager out of Spurs, but you can't take Spurs out of the manager." Obviously we can workshop the details later, but you get the idea. "Les Hotspurs…" no, no, probably not.
But the gag, while pleasing, overlooks the fact that PSG have worked very hard to develop their own persistent big game neurosis. And we should respect that effort. It can't be easy, after all, seesawing so quickly between "This lot could win the whole thing!" and "This lot's heads have completely gone!"
As noted above, in the first half City couldn't get hold of the ball. But once they did, even for a little bit, PSG shrank back into themselves, caught in that terrible place between trying to reassert themselves and trying to hold what they had. The midfield dissolved. The front three drifted away. One chance for two-nil, inches from Marco Veratti's boot. And then: nada. Wait, no, French. Rien.
Nothing up one end, that is. All sorts of shenanigans at the other. As the team lost its collective head, so its component parts lost theirs. We can perhaps feel some sympathy for Keylor Navas, caught flat-footed for the first goal by one of those curling far-post crosses that require goalkeepers to be in about three places at once. But the second should never have made it anywhere near the goal - the thing about defensive walls, right, is you really don't want to build them with big old windows.
And Idrissa Gueye's red card was just straightforwardly bad: the careless, frustrated, clattering tackle of a player that's losing a game they were winning and can't see a way to swing things back. Maybe kicking somebody will help? No. It didn't help.
Like the little girl with the little curl: they are very, very good, or they are horrid. But what they never seem to be - at least not in these big games, which are outliers in the broad sweep of the season but are also the games that really matter - is in control. This means, of course, that you can never count them out. Not even at 2-1 down; not even with the away goals.
But it also means you can never truly count them in. Even at 1-0 up and apparently in charge of things. This is probably quite frustrating for anybody that supports the team, but for the neutral they are the perfect elite cup side: capable of anything, capable of everything, sometimes all at the same time. And they thought they could have a Super League without this lot?

All roads lead to beef

So, after all that, how does the little old Europa League get any attention? With some good old-fashioned trash talking, that's how. Here's Ole Gunnar Solskjær, giving Roma both barrels last week:
I don't know them and I haven't seen them play.
Biff! Thump! Kapow! Naturally, Roma's fans have responded in spicy fashion, plastering the training ground with posters urging their players to "Make sure he remembers us". But you have to admire the chutzpah from Solskjær. Good old-fashioned mind games, just like Fergie used to make. He's in their heads. He's made his point: there are football clubs, and then there are big football clubs. And— oh, hang on, there's more.
Of course I'd watched them, but I hadn't analysed and hadn't seen them in depth. It's a fantastic club with a great history. ... It was not meant as any disrespect, and I think everyone knows that. I've got loads of respect for them.
Oh. Well, you can see why he didn't go into wrestling. He hasn't even mentioned the 7-1! It's almost like he expects this massive, season-defining game, between two historic teams with nothing much else to play for, to speak for itself.
But come on, Ole. We've got a few hours yet. Say it was weird that Daniele de Rossi used to cut one of his shirt sleeves off. Reveal that Chris Smalling used to leave toenail-clippings in the dressing room. Tell us you think Remus was the better brother and made the better chances. Give us something.

IN OTHER NEWS

Once again, the real star of the big Champions League night was Micah Richards. Joy unconfined. For everybody except Carragher.

RETRO CORNER

Manchester City may never have won the European Cup or the Champions League, but they aren't entirely without continental silverware. Here's their victory over Górnik Zabrze in the final of the 1970 Cup Winners' Cup. Do enjoy Górnik's defending for City's second: just about a penalty, we reckon.

HAT TIP

Clickbait gets a bad name, but sometimes a headline just speaks to you. "He was a goat but we loved him", for example. That delightful tempter comes courtesy of Arne Steinberg and the Guardian, bidding a fond farewell to FC Köln mascot Hennes VIII.
Cologne is not your average German city and neither is FC Cologne your average team. In 1950, a local circus gave the new club their first billy goat as a present. Hennes Weisweiler, who went on to become a club legend, was player-manager at the time and there was no surprise the first goat was given the name Hennes. Since then the club and their goat have been inseparable.

COMING UP

Europa League! Don't mind if we do. Manchester United take on Roma in one semi-final, while Arsenal face Villarreal — and some guy called Unai Emery — in the other. They're both on at the same time, though, so you'll have to find some way of unpairing your eyeballs.
Tom Adams will be here with tomorrow's Warm-Up. He has no beef with the city of Rome or its people … as far as we know.
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