The final of the Champions League initially takes an unfavorable course for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola. It gets better in the second half. The Citizens take the lead, then falter, but don’t fall. This team is unbeatable.
Everything turned out the way it had to. Manchester City’s crushing investments are paying off this Saturday night. After 15 years and a stake of 2.5 billion euros, the team is at the top, the players lift the legendary handle pot into the sky of Istanbul. The most important trophy in club football is incorporated. Abu Dhabi has taken over European football. Sheikh Mansour and his group of owners are world famous. The “how” will not be discussed much beyond this evening. City staggered over the finish line 1-0 (0-0) and had to endure numerous anxious moments.
Defender Manuel Akanji later said it was perhaps the “worst game of the season”. The verdict doesn’t have to be that harsh, but at least this final went very differently than everyone else (outside of Milan) had predicted. Even the historically greatest debacle of the final story was unpacked to illustrate how the Italians have no chance of being outnumbered by England. City had cleared everything out of the way in the past few weeks that was not firmly anchored. And even the thickest ropes tore the men of star coach Josep Guardiola with their wild force. Like an untamable beast.
Inter struggles, Guardiola desperate
But not in Istanbul. Inter and coach Filippo Inzahgi had come up with the perfect plan to throw Manchester’s footballing perfection out of their rhythm. The Nerazzurri attacked early, moved cleverly and ripped City’s heart out. Kevin De Bruyne, arguably the best playmaker of recent years, had little opportunity to develop. And İlkay Gündoğan couldn’t do it the way he did so well and so willingly. The five-man chain of the Italians acted almost flawlessly. Inter allowed a flick from Bernardo Silva (6th) and a pass to Erling Haaland (27th). Both remained undamaged. Numerous guests of honor watched the final spectacle from the stands, above all the Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan alongside UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin and FIFA boss Gianni Infantino.
Inter struggled, City struggled, Guardiola despaired. In the fight for his third crown in Europe, he had renounced personal experiments, which in the past had regularly cost him the title in an outrageous way, but his plan did not seem to work out as hoped. The team was miles away from their own perfection, which they celebrated in the semi-final second leg against Real Madrid. The final was a fight, rarely art. Not even in the second half, in which De Bruyne was no longer able to participate. He was injured before the break. Memories of 2021 were awakened. At that time, the city dreams were shattered on the shoulder of DFB defense chief Antonio Rüdiger, who was still playing at Chelsea at the time. De Bruyne broke his face.
But this evening ended differently than the one at the Estádio do Dragão. Without tears of disappointment from the Belgians, without tears from the Skyblues. City fought back and found a gap. A fine attack led the ball to clearer Rodri, who was lucky (68th). A few minutes earlier, Lautaro Martinez had fatally failed a counterattack. He had missed the allusion to Romelu Lukaku. And with it the chance to give this finale a sensational twist. Because nobody really had bet on Inter (outside of Milan). City played seriously for a while. But the team didn’t get the game controlled. Federico Dimarco headed a ball first to the crossbar and then to Lukaku’s foot (70′). Inzaghi couldn’t believe it, neither could Guardiola. And it got worse (from Inter’s point of view). In the 88th minute, Lukaku headed a cross from national player Robin Gosens to goalkeeper Ederson’s knee, absurd.
Young kings, old kings
Goal: 1-0 Rodrigo (68′)
Manchester: Ederson – Akanji, Ruben Dias, Ake – Rodrigo, Stones (82nd Walker) – Bernardo Silva, De Bruyne (36th Foden), Gündogan, Grealish – Haaland; Trainer: Guardiola.
Milan: Onana – Darmian (84 D’Ambrosio), Acerbi, Bastoni (76 Gosens) – Dumfries (77 Bellanova), Brozovic, Dimarco – Barella, Calhanoglu (84 Mchitarjan) – Dzeko (57 Lukaku), Lautaro Martinez; Trainer: Inzaghi.
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Poland)
Viewers: 71,412 (sold out in Istanbul)
Yellow cards: Haaland, Ederson – Barella, Lukaku, Onana, Inzaghi (as coach)
The team that can make the game look so beautifully simple, that redefine football, they didn’t know what was happening to them. And she longed for the final whistle. It came after 96 minutes and another strong save from Ederson. Captain Gündoğan finally got his reward after two unsuccessful attempts, Guardiola had tricked his own genius and overcome his great trauma. For the first time in twelve years he is again the king of the premier class. He has learned to trust the players. Not subjugating the game to his idea. But to adapt his idea to the squad. He understands what footballers can and want. And the footballers understand what the coach wants from them.
A perfect example: Haaland. The Tormonster had scored 52 goals in 53 competitive games, he had done his job, not changed. Guardiola had let him do it, he had let him be Haaland. And this storm phenomenon had made the historic triple clear for the Citizens in the first year. More is not possible. Most recently, city rivals United celebrated the only triple in English football in 1999.
An outstanding season ends with a deserved triumph. Not that night, but seen throughout the season. A turning point. Abu Dhabi controls European football. While Major League Soccer and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a culture war, a battle of systems, a battle for yesterday’s stars, investors have hijacked local football. With their billion-dollar draft, which effortlessly got rid of the old giants Real Madrid and FC Bayern this season. A reversal of the balance of power? Hardly conceivable, not in the long term. Not as long as the money is bubbling up like the oil in the United Arab Emirates.
You don’t have to like the construct. You can even demonize it. But what’s the point? Manchester City not only has an almost endless amount of success, but also a lot of expertise. With Guardiola, the team probably has the greatest genius of the past two decades. He once led FC Barcelona to perfection with Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. And now City. With unlimited financial possibilities. And a clever transfer strategy. Unlike Paris St. Germain, for example, which senselessly squanders the Qatari billions on the big names in world football. Still without success. And now stands before the umpteenth reconstruction. Things are different at City. At the latest since the 2016/17 season, the puzzle has started to be put together, which has now been completed and provides beautiful pictures with the handle pot.
Guardiola overcomes himself
Guardiola came from Bayern Munich. And with him came Gündoğan and John Stones. Indispensable cornerstones of the team. Ederson, Kyle Walker and Bernardo Silva followed. Then came Riyad Mahrez (2018), Rodri (2019), Ruben Dias (2020), Jack Grealish (2021) and finally the two Dortmunders Haaland and Akanji. The best players (for their role) found their way to the best coach. The defense found more and more stability, a huge problem for the free-spirited ensemble for a long time. Liberation as a means found its way. Actually a horror for an aesthete like Guardiola. And with Tor-Monster Haaland the perfect refiner came along. One who gave these wizards an unstoppable power. Power and will instead of constantly looking for a goal miracle. Another turnaround: Guardiola and the Norwegian had also discarded their aversion to a real nine. The best memory is still the friend-enmity with arrogance giant Zlatan Ibrahimović, who once mocked the Catalans with the words: “We don’t need the philosopher.”
The football world saw it differently. Guardiola is admired for the ease with which he lets the stars of the game glide across the pitch. Always able to find the best solution. Outstanding in their skills on the ball, even more outstanding in positional play. On February 5th, a team was last able to crack this outstanding team, Tottenham Hotspur won the league game 1-0, Harry Kane had scored. Since then, the Citizens have greedily eaten their way through all competitions, occasionally conceding a draw, but never losing. The fact that Inter were very, very close that night is a side note from Sunday. What remains is a team from Manchester that dominates this sport like no other before it. Maybe like Barça around 2010. Shaped by Guardiola. City dangles an opponent on the hook, sometimes hoping to break free. A fight with no real chance. All season, this Saturday night. Everything turned out the way it had to.
But there are also dark clouds on the perfectly planned success. An independent Premier League commission has been investigating the club for some time. It is about alleged violations of the financial rules of the English league. The league accuses club officials of providing incorrect financial information during nine seasons between 2009 and 2018, “particularly in relation to their revenues (including sponsorship revenues), their related parties and their operating costs.” Anything is conceivable as a penalty, from financial sanctions to point deductions. But until a verdict is reached, the Beast City is running the story on the pitch. There they succeed again and again in the perfect game.