This is it. Europe’s topflight-football calendar reaches its last mark for this season with its biggest offering yet, as Premier League’s Manchester City and Chelsea collide in the final of the UEFA Champions League at the Estádio do Dragão in Porto this Saturday.
After taking them to the UCL final last season, Thomas Tuchel was sacked by Paris Saint-Germain midway through this one. He was hired immediately by Chelsea, who dismissed club legend Frank Lampard in an unsurprising turn of events. Tuchel came into a side who were exciting going ahead but in tatters at the back. Almost immediately, he sorted that out and stopped the leakage of goals that had left Chelsea at the brink of falling out of the top half in the league table. He restored his side’s defensive constitution and saw them soar back up the table, ending the season in fourth, which was the bare minimum for a club like Chelsea. Not just that, he led his side to the FA Cup final – which, admittedly, they lost to Leicester City – and the Champions League final for the first time since 2012, which the Blues won. On their way to the UCL final, Chelsea saw off Atlético Madrid (Round of 16), FC Porto (Quarter-final), and Real Madrid (Semi-final) in the knockout rounds with aggregate scores of 3-0, 2-1 and 3-1, respectively.
After a 2019-20 season that was relatively underwhelming by their usual standards, Manchester City came roaring back into this one. Pep Guardiola’s Cityzens not just comfortably secured the Premier League title for the third time in four years, they also retained the Carabao Cup for yet another year, and finally broke through the UCL Quarter-final hurdle to make it all the way to the final. On their way to the UCL final, City saw off Borussia Mönchengladbach (Round of 16), Borussia Dortmund (Quarter-final), and PSG (Semi-final) in the knockout rounds with aggregate scores of 4-0, 4-2 and 4-1, respectively.
For Chelsea, this season has shades of the 2011-12 one, when after sacking their manager midway through the season, they managed to miraculously go all the way and lift the Champions League trophy, having ended the league campaign on a slightly underwhelming yet relatively respectable note. Come Saturday, they could very well repeat the feat.
As Chelsea went about winning the UCL in 2012, they beat Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona along the way. For the past decade, winning the Champions League has become a bit of an albatross around both Guardiola and City’s necks. For one reason or the other, despite marauding through the Premier League and winning every other major domestic trophy in their time together, the Champions League is the one where Man City have come unstuck, more often than not against teams they would be expected to beat soundly. This year, they finally seem to have overcome their past demons on their way to the UCL final and have shown real composure while doing so. Having come this far, they wouldn’t want to delay getting their hands on the Big Ears any longer.
Tuchel’s Chelsea arrive in the final having already beaten City twice this season. The Blues knocked the Cityzens out of the FA Cup last month and also beat them in the Premier League earlier this month in what was considered a dress rehearsal for the UCL final. Though neither Pep nor Tuchel could be assumed to have shown their final cards, Chelsea’s players do come into the final with a certain psychological edge over their counterparts.
Tuchel’s 3-4-1-2/3-4-2-1 hybrid, that has been instrumental in shoring up Chelsea’s defence, also stacks the midfield with good-on-the-ball players that are capable of effectively keeping the ball away even from the likes of City, whose system effectively needs ball possession to perform at its best, with the players usually finding themselves against teams who seemingly give up any hope of the ball even before the match starts. Not Chelsea, though.
Guardiola, on the other hand, will have undoubtedly thought of dealing with that after facing defeat twice. As good as João Cancelo has been this season by being a unique attacking component, Pep might look to start Kyle Walker on the right and Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left to stave off the attacking runs of Chelsea’s full-backs. The Ukrainian, in particular, could be key, for his substitution into the side in place of Cancelo was the crucial turning point in City’s first-leg comeback win over PSG in the semis. While both sides have been prone to find coming back into a game difficult after going down, City have shown more composure and belief recently compared to Chelsea, whose lack of attacking prowess has dealt them defeats against Arsenal, Leicester City (in the FA Cup final), and Aston Villa this month.
At the end of the day, as Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel – arguably two of the brightest tactical minds out there right now – try to outsmart each other this Saturday, they will be serving us one sumptuous treat of a football match, as the curtain falls on this season’s European club football. Sergio Agüero once famously said that he’d leave City only after winning the Champions League. As he prepares himself for his final match for the Sky Blues, he might just become the fulfiller of his own prophecy. After all, the man’s no stranger to miracles.
IST for the UEFA Champions League Final Kick-off – 12.30 AM on Sunday, 30 May 2021
Where to Watch – Sony TEN 2 / SonyLIV