The devil always gets the best tunes. Watching Paris Saint-Germain overwhelm Celtic in the Champions League on Wednesday the most striking thing about PSG was not the sense of powerful gears still in reserve, or even the basic beauty of their attacking play, the way the ball skittered about between Neymar and promising loanee-trialist Kylian Mbappé like a bead of water in a pan of hot fat. The most remarkable thing was how difficult it was, suddenly, to properly dislike them.
Difficult but not impossible. It is important to emphasise this. PSG’s on-field brilliance may be a concern for any football fan committed to resenting and fearing the entire concept of “Paris Saint-Germain”, puppet-club of the world’s richest per capita nation, and an entity that has taken the idea of buying success to the most literal-minded global illuminati extreme.
But there is no need to panic just yet. There are still obstacles to a full seduction. The slightly frightening space-age-Stasi skintight plastic shirts. The romping self-regard, the absurd pileup of basking superstars. For all the craft and power of Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot (caution: academy product, may contain likability) it still seems absolutely vital someone manages to beat PSG this season, if only to maintain a pretence that ultimate victory must be built and crafted – and bought, of course – rather than simply assembled.
So, that’s a happy story then. The reason for noting this triumph of hate over aesthetic appeal is the contrast with Manchester City, who are also an overclass club funded by a sovereign wealth fund, albeit to a lesser degree. City made a profit last year. This is a sustainable overblown cash-splurging business these days, thanks mainly to overblown cash-splurging Premier League income.
There are limits, though. When City first brought in Pep Guardiola and gave him £300m to spend it was hard, as a neutral, to shake the feeling of a large red button being pressed, of somebody else’s pre-cooked success template being slammed into place. There are no guarantees in sport but buying the best manager and the best players comes pretty close.
For a while it seemed likely the only really interesting thing about City would be if they failed to win the league, if Guardiola were to self-destruct amusingly, whirling about on his touchline, cranium bulging, baffled by the muscle-football of the skies. City play at Huddersfield on Sunday, a game that should by rights be all about whether Huddersfield, a team valued at roughly the same amount as Raheem Sterling, can tweak the noses of the league leaders.
Except things have not quite turned out like that. It has been a week for cosying up to this City team, finding new ways to praise their brilliance through the first third of the season. Well, here is another one. They are also unavoidably likable. This isn’t always the case with mega-money teams or runaway league leaders. City are both of these. But they are also unavoidably fun, compelling, nice, watchable. Frankly they could beat Huddersfield 4-0 and have 93% possession and we’d still be tuning in eagerly to the highlights to get a little more of the juice, the good stuff.
This is in part to do with style. Should City win the league from here they will enter a tradition of striking, attack-based English champion sides. In the last 30 years this is a line that runs from that 1987-88 Liverpool team, all short-passing red-shirted menace, driven on by peak John Barnes and the bowl-headed genius of Peter Beardsley; through Fergie-era Manchester Uniteds; to the last of them, the slightly overlooked Ancelotti Chelsea, who could barely turn around without burping out a few more goals, a 4-0 there, a 7-1 here.
The unusual thing about City in this company is they play with a real lightness of touch, the kind of puppyish forward motion that doesn’t often end up winning titles. In terms of pure pleasure, it’s like watching a hard-edged version of Alan Devonshire-era West Ham, or some pre-Emirates Arsenal League Cup team, all Tuesday night trills and brittle brilliance, but somehow also actually going out and looking like winning the league.
A team this fun can even redeem another one-horse title race if that is the way we are headed. City’s season already feels like it’s less about points, more about style and method and chasing the moment, football as an ideal, as something perfectible.
And for all the money, this is still a human-scale achievement. City haven’t simply gone out and hurled a diamond the size of the moon at Lionel Messi’s head. Something has been built here. Guardiola has pinned his reputation on being able to wring the most out of a high-end front three aged 20, 21 and 22.
For months Sterling, in particular, was a source of frustration, to the extent Guardiola took to painting a chalk spot on the training pitch to show him where to stand. And yet, a year and half on, every player in the first XI has been improved in some way, from the obvious slimmed down all-out brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne to Fabian Delph’s turn as an excitingly funky left-back.
There is a relentlessness to this, a refusal to dial it back, to let things simply tick over. In the last week the loss of John Stones to injury has brought the news from Spain that City could look to shore up this central-defensive weakness by signing king of the mooching pirouette Riyad Mahrez. Yes! More! Don’t stop!
From here mid-season collapse would perhaps be even more beautiful, Guardiola stricken on his touchline, Captain Ahab in emu-feather thousand-dollar Converse trainers. But really, there is already a kind of triumph for this team, trophies or not, in the pitch and style of the current run, not to mention a fascination over where they might end up.
For the first time in a while nobody looks particularly unbeatable in the Champions League, although memories of the way Monaco ripped through last season’s team will still linger. From a certain angle it seem oddly inevitable City will end up playing PSG at some high-stakes late stage, two sides of the Gulf blockade in a soft-power arm wrestle, played out by a cast of scampering Brazilians.
Either way there is already something beautiful here, a reminder of the peculiar ability of sport to transcend the industrial-scale inanities around it and produce through the fug of distraction, the wrestle of interests, something that is still somehow uplifting and pure.