Amid all the banners and tifosi at an eerie Parc des Princes, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City reignited their rivalry for European dominance in the last four of the Champions League, the competition that for now remains the continent's premier club competition and represents the very best and the very worst of the global game.
On the one side, the hosts and UEFA allies lined up in their traditional colours of dark blue; on the other side the visitors and Super League rebels wore their famous sky blue. In many ways, PSG and City have shaped the European game, a sport that has capitulated to hypercapitalism and a vortex of other nefarious forces in the past two decades.
Much in football has changed ever since Kevin De Bruyne's sumptuous strike from the edge of the box ensured City's progress from the quarter-finals in 'El Gasico' in 2016. The transfer market became inflated, FFP was breached, competition ossified across Europe, and in the background of the PSG-City rivalry, geopolitics in the Gulf escalated. Facades for powerful and affluent states, behemoths PSG and City became part of a self-perpetuating elite of clubs at the top of the European pyramid.
And yet after investing billions in star players and hiring and firing a slate of elite coaches, both PSG and City's quest for continental glory endures. Their existence is informed by their obsession with the European Cup. Of course, in the wake of the European Super League disintegration, PSG were seen as one of the saviors of the Champions League when the club rejected the idea of a closed-shop competition. In the French capital, City were supposedly the pantomime villains.
The villains disappointed and deceived in equal measure in a game that failed to match the high-octane 180 minutes of wild quarter-final chaos between the Parisians and reigning champions Bayern Munich. In the first stanza, City's philosophy of ball possession was rendered impotent by a well-organised PSG. At half-time, Guardiola threw his hands up in frustration. His team had been second best, even if Phil Foden contrived to squander a gilt-edged chance.
Had the Spaniard overcomplicated things again? Did his team need a genuine striker instead of playing with a false nine? The English champions-in-waiting were disjointed and meek, a shadow of the sweeping and barnstorming team in domestic competition. From the start, a pattern set in with City passing the ball around a lot and PSG content to sit back and wait for the opportunity to counter at leg-breaking speed with talisman Neymar and superstar Kylian Mbappe. It was all much expected.
After fifteen minutes, Marquinhos connected with a flat, vicious corner from Angel Di Maria to flick a header into the top left corner. Ederson had absolutely no chance whatsoever. PSG, however, didn't press on. In practical terms, it seemed to translate into an utterly illogical entitlement. Complacency tends to kill the momentum in the game. It breeds too much comfort, invites ebbs in intensity levels, and inevitably leads to danger from the opponent.
When City's equaliser arrived in the second half, it was not the result of ingenuity or relentless pressing, but the consequence of slapstick defending in the PSG box with all defenders and goalkeeper Keylor Navas ball-watching De Bruyne's cross. The Belgian's passes are so good that he even scores with them. Every touch of the ball provides a window of opportunity. It was his third goal in three confrontations against PSG and the prelude to Paris' soft capitulation.
The Parisians proved inept at building a wall. Riyad Mahrez, who grew up in the banlieues of the French capital, exploited it with a surprise snap shot. The wall opened up and the ball flew straight through it. It was a sky blue reward for hunger, great mindset, and total command in the second half.
What followed was almost predictable from PSG. Provoked, they crumbled. First, Neymar was booked for a sly nibble at Ruben Dias, then Idrissa Gueye was sent off for a murderous studs-on-ankle stamp on Ilker Gundogan. In those few minutes were bound up the psychodrama that PSG seem unable to shake off in the Champions League: it's a competition that demands too much from the club; that ultimately, whatever happens, seems to elude PSG. The meltdown was complete. Both Neymar and Mbappe faded from the game.
The English victory was an expression of potency. At long last, Pep Guardiola, City, and Abu Dhabi are within reach of what they have longed for all these years.