El Gasico? El Cashico? But Man City v PSG is worth getting excited for | Jonathan Liew
So what takes precedence here: the football stuff, or the other stuff? Obviously you know about the other stuff. Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester City in the Champions League semi-final has already more than its fair share of alternative monikers. El Gasico. El Cashico. The Sportswashing Derby. Gulf War Three. A proxy battle on hybrid grass; a clash of new money and even newer money; Qatar v Abu Dhabi; the diseased nadir of the modern game; a big night for Kyle Walker.
It is, of course, all of these things and less. The meeting of European football’s two great petrocarbon empires feels ostensibly like a moment for savage lament: to mourn football’s slow capitulation to capital and disdain for human rights, to curse the subversion of the game we all love to forces well beyond our control. Even so, this is a course of action that only really makes sense until about 7.59pm on Wednesday night, at which point all moral resistance feels queerly obsolescent. This fixture is an utter disgrace and I object to it in the strongest possible terms. Peep! Right: come on Neymar, get stuck in, son.
As the old saying almost has it: when life gives you climate change, grow lemons. This is, after all, the great paradox of the contemporary Champions League: the better it gets, the harder it becomes to defend it. And so perhaps it is possible to register our distaste at the circumstances by which the spectacle has come about, while also feeling obscenely excited about the spectacle itself. Because make no mistake: this is a game worth getting excited about.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of this encounter is the way in which it throws together two clubs who for all their extravagant spending, their emotional investment, their naked yearning, have never been able to harness the prize that matters most to them. Combined transfer spending: roughly £3bn. Combined Champions League titles: zero. There’s a lesson in there: one that speaks to the intensely capricious nature of this competition, its preference for old money and old certainties, a legacy cartel almost as exclusive as anything Europe’s billionaire owners could dream up on their own.
Consider the recent roll-call of winners: a couple of Bayern Munichs, a quartet of Real Madrids, a Liverpool and a Barcelona. Consider, too, that Roman Abramovich has been hurling pieces of his soul at this competition for the best part of two decades, and to date his only triumph has come courtesy of a penalty shootout in 2012. Consider that Roberto Di Matteo won the Champions League more recently than Pep Guardiola, that the combined talents of David Silva, Sergio Agüero, Vincent Kompany and Kevin De Bruyne have played in fewer finals than Harry Winks.
And so to master this competition is really to master these variables: to make your peace with its caprice, to recognise that sometimes the biggest prize in the club game is won and lost on the sort of fine details that even entire states can’t bring under their control. Fernando Llorente scoring with his hand in the dying minutes; the most expensive footballer of all time squandering a gilt-edged chance in a tight final; one of the richest squads in European football inexplicably squandering a 4-0 first-leg lead; one of the greatest managers of all time getting outfoxed on the break by Lyon. You can’t always legislate for this stuff, even if your wealth and influence suggest you can. All you can really do is line up your galaxy of stars in a row, trust in your process and hope for the best.
Barring a late outbreak of genius from Guardiola, this is largely what we can expect from City on Wednesday night. After eight consecutive knockout exits as a manager, he appears to have struck upon a reliable method in this competition: a rotating front four of Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and De Bruyne, an emphasis on possession and patience, a belief that sheer weight of chances will elide their lack of a natural finisher.
This is perhaps the main point of contrast with PSG, a team whose threat is mapped and telegraphed well in advance. Stop Neymar and Kylian Mbappé and City will make the final. How they do it, of course, is the real quandary.
Starve them of service by squeezing the midfield high, and they leave wide open spaces behind them for the one that does get through. Surround them with bodies as they did with Erling Haaland in the quarter-final, and they leave themselves vulnerable to the dangerous free-kicks that Neymar is so good at winning in tight spaces.
Whichever approach they adopt will be a percentage decision, a parsing of risk, a strategy that could stand or fall on a single unknowable moment.
And for all the obvious dichotomies in this tie – the battering ram against the ring of infinite keys, the team with no midfield against the team consisting of little else, Qatar v Abu Dhabi – this feels like its unifying thread. Both PSG and Manchester City are essentially playing a game of numbers and faith: that if they throw enough cash, clout and yearning at this competition, then eventually, one year it will be their year. In the long run, they’re both probably right. In the short term, as ever, vanishingly little is certain: except, perhaps, the fact that it will definitely be a very big night for Kyle Walker.