One more step close. Yet another stage crossed and now the destination is in touching distance. Promised Land is now not too far away. The UEFA Champions League semifinal is done and two teams remain to battle it out for the final. As we thus venture to review the UCL semifinal, it is only fitting we put football in context. Especially after football threatened to change context on its head.
Firstly, it is important to remind the readers that this is indeed still the Champions League, the UCL as we love it to be. It is the UCL semifinal more specifically. A destination - or path to a greater destination - that the clubs have earned through rightful competition. On one side fought the petro-clubs; the newbies of football extravaganza - PSG and Manchester City. On the other side battled the competition's pioneering elite club and the pioneer of English football's money injectors - Real Madrid and Chelsea.
PSG and City put on a show for large parts of both games. Until the fizzle because of two mind-numbing acts. Implosion is how the wider world would term it. Both sides have seen a few over the years. However, the headlines would still read of City's brilliance. Pep Guardiola finally achieved what his heart has so desired since 2011. A first final in 10 years after seeing off his own caprice with the Champions League.
And Chelsea imitated City's scoreline to make the final an English rendezvous in Istanbul. A venue that has previously seen a famous English night before. Thomas Tuchel masterminded a similarly dominant performance to City's across both legs. Madrid looked second best by a margin across both legs. They were hamstrung by injury and if it were any other team, a Champions League semifinal would have been a step too far. Not for Madrid. But eventually, even for Madrid, the showpiece clash became a wish too many.
UCL semifinal review: PSG vs Manchester City
Both teams entered the tie after German conquests. PSG had their Bavarian revenge from last year's final as they defeated Bayern Munich. Meanwhile, City defeated their could-be star kid, Jadon Sancho's now home Borrusia Dortmund. That set up a classic clash between clubs that have chartered a similar path. Two clubs that harbour similar interests. Backed by owners who have passionately desired and generously fueled these interests with their fortunes. Two clubs who have so desired to be in these games, win these games and establish a sound European legacy. Yet, it has so consistently and quite quizzically backfired. Collapses and breakdowns instead of championships and bravado. And so, in this battle once again, it was boom or bust to write contrasting stories. One of the overdue breakthrough, the other of familiar failure.
UCL semifinal - PSG lead
And if one were to only watch the first half of the first leg of this tie, they would inscribe the word Paris Saint-Germain on the trophy. The Parisiens were utterly dominant in Paris for the opening 45 minutes. They found the lead through their Brazilian captain Marquinhos. The centre-back found space to leap from an Angel Di Maria corner in the 15th minute. And, on locating room, he relocated the balance of the tie in PSG's favour with a dainty flick of his neck.
That was the cue for PSG's other Brazilian to take charge. Neymar ran the show during the first half and had City rattled. It seemed as though a different team from England had turned up. City were being served a notice they have so often written this season. Joao Cancelo was particularly dizzied by the PSG movement in the first half. The City midfield barely got into the game and when they went back into the dressing room, they might have thought - damage control today, tie-winning next week.
But that is exactly what they did not think, or at least their actions betrayed whatever negative anybody may have thought about them. Perhaps, that is what makes champions. Guardiola changed nothing - same team, same style and still no recognized number 9. Yet, so much changed. City started playing with the ball and positioned themselves higher into PSG's area. Suddenly, there seemed to be a mirror of contrast in the second. It was PSG's turn to chase shadows.
UCL semifinal - Shadow chasing and City comeback
And shadows must be what Keylor Navas was chasing to allow City into the tie and translate dominance into result. Kevin De Bruyne was the beneficiary and City, very unexpectedly, found their way back into the game. Off the inside left channel, De Bruyne lifted a hopeful ball hoping to find redirection. Instead, with everyone crawling to get a touch, the ball found itself crossing the goal line. If fortune and misjudgement combined to get City the equaliser, fortune colluded with mistake to help them take a priceless lead home. City found a free-kick which PSG expected De Bruyne to strike. Mahrez found a hole in the wall and wheeled away in disbelief.
It was a collapse quite like PSG on the big stage, as Idrissa Gueye made a rash tackle to be sent off. That rush of blood denied PSG any late rush to prevent City's lead. And PSG repeated the same rush of blood mistake in the second leg. Angel Di Maria was the culprit on this occasion, stamping on the clever Fernandinho. The Brazilian had a perfect game. He committed six bookable offences without getting a card. He may not have been too upset had he got one. It was his 36th birthday which City celebrated with an elite all-round performance at the Etihad.
UCL semifinal - Breakaway and goodbye
However, the game had perhaps already passed them by when Di Maria was sent off. City were leading by two goals. Both scored by the unplayable Algerian Riyad Mahrez. The elusive winger opened the scoring for City, latching onto a loose ball from a deflection. His right footed caress meant PSG were left with an even steeper mountain to scale. Led by Neymar, they made a solid effort with Marquinhos coming closest with a header that flicked the bar. Di Maria also missed a golden opportunity which he himself created. Portuguese Bernardo Silva took time on the ball in what was a frantic opening 20 minutes. Di Maria nicked it off him and proceeded to curl it wide of an empty net.
PSG would be left to rue their missed chances when City executed the perfect breakaway in the second half. The fourth goal put some gloss on the tie. Pace. Precision. Guile. Finesse. Finish. This goal had it all. A perfect depiction of City's brilliant season. In front of a poster of Colin Bell. Mahrez pirouetted, paused, saw the glamour of the headlines and slotted Phil Foden's postage-stamped pass into an empty PSG net. Empty is what PSG must have felt then. Their heads went as an injured Mbappe looked on desolately from the bench. Everyone was flying into challenges, hurling people down. It is a testament to the referee's determination that the game finished with 21 players on the pitch.
It was a victory of composure and philosophy for City. An impeccable and magisterial display from one end of the pitch to the other.
UCL semifinal: Real Madrid vs Chelsea
This was billed as the battle of the opposites. Real Madrid and Chelsea, in current spirit, are as mutually distant as two clubs can get. Madrid are still adamant about the European Super League. Chelsea stood off at first chance. The semi-final clash, too, was a clash of contrasts. Two sides that are on two sides of a curve. Chelsea are firmly on the side that goes up. Renewed by the vigour and precision of their new manager. Thomas Tuchel has transformed Chelsea. There seems a sprightly spring in their steps. One that even City could not naturalize in the FA Cup. Real Madrid, meanwhile, are lumbering on. However, Real Madrid's lumber is better than most teams' canter. Still in the La Liga title race. 52 injuries and no signings but they keep going.
UCL semifinal - the missing men
Perhaps going is exactly what Marcelo needed to avoid in the first leg. The Brazilian left full back was deployed in a wing back role which was meant to relieve him of some defensive duties. However, he relieved himself of any defensive duty. That afforded Chelsea space and joy down their right. It could have also afford them a mighty lead to take back to Stamford Bridge. But Timo Werner did not find stride or finishing. His miss in the 10th minute of the game is its most glaring. Chelsea countered with pace. Mason Mount found a cross for Christian Pulisic. He squared it for Werner, who missed from 6 yards out. It was an unbelievable miss. He had only the goalkeeper to beat and no defenders were around. Yet, he shot it straight against Thibaut Courtois's right boot.
However, Chelsea soon broke the deadlock. Pulisic found Real Madrid's net through a wonderful solo effort after Antonio Rudiger's long ball found him behind the opposition defence. Pulisic beautifully rounded the goalkeeper, looked up and found an alley between two Madrid defenders on goalline to give Chelsea a 14th minute lead. Chelsea could have had three more from counter attacks. All three were from incisive moves from the right that had as many Madrid defenders backtracking as Chelsea players moving forward. But, lapse in passing and poor positioning meant Madrid were in the game.
And Madrid punished the London club in the first half itself. It was from a scrappy melee in the box. Eder Militao jumped high to find Benzema who adjusted his body to rifle a back volley home. That gave Madrid just enough to keep the tie alive. But more to Chelsea as they returned with an away goal.
UCL semifinal - the tireless Kante can
And Chelsea perhaps did not need the away goal. They scored two of their own without reply in London. It was an almost perfect performance from Chelsea. The only English blip in London on the night came from the commentator. Martin Tyler said Chelsea could make their second Champions League final in the 10th minute of the game. Well, it will certainly be a second all-English UCL final for Chelsea. The last one being in Moscow 2008.
The person who made sure Chelsea made it to Istanbul was the tireless Kante. Despite the plethora of misses, Kante's proactive energy created both Chelsea goals. The first one, tucked in by Werner from under the post in an open goal. It was after Kante had reached first to a second ball and combined to set Havertz through. One German hit the post but the other was close by. Kante played a similar role in Chelsea's second. This time, he played Pulisic in and the scorer from the first leg set Mount up for a tap in.
Mount gladly accepted his chance after he was among the many Chelsea players guilty of not putting the tie to bed earlier.
UCL final - Manchester City vs Chelsea