FOR the second time in three years, the Champions League final is a clash between familiar foes, the third all-English affair and the 22nd winner of the competition against a side bidding to become the 23rd.
When Bayern Munich won the competition in 2020, some pundits were predicting the start of a new era of Bavarian supremacy. Those same pundits forecast the dawn of a Liverpool era in England, the possible end of the Guardiola age at City and the creation of a dynasty led by Jürgen Klopp. A year on, Pep has rediscovered his mojo, Liverpool have been found to have a lack of strength in depth, Bayern are surprisingly going through a managerial change and the two Spanish giants have financial problems. Real, Bayern, Juventus, Tottenham and Inter Milan will go into 2021-22 with new coaches and Barcelona may also be in the hunt for a new manager. Rarely have the top clubs been in such a state of flux.
And what of this year’s UEFA Champions League finalists? Chelsea sacked Frank Lampard and brought in Thomas Tuchel. The new man has impressed and taken Chelsea to two finals, but they’ve lost one and the Champions League couldn’t be tougher. Manchester City won their third Premier League in four years, but this wasn’t quite the City of 2019. Equally, it wasn’t a win by default, City were by far the best team and survived transition well.
This will be City’s first European final since 1970 and Chelsea’s fifth in the Abramovich era. They know how to beat City and they have never lost a European final in 120 minutes. Their only defeat, in 2008, was on penalties after a 1-1 draw with Manchester United.
The popular view is that Pep Guardiola is “Mr Champions League”, but it has been a decade since he last won the competition. Chelsea have won it more recently, beating Bayern Munich on penalties in 2012.
It is interesting that Porto should have been chosen as the final venue. This is an excellent football city, passionate, sunny, welcoming and very agreeable for those that appreciate the finer things in life. Both City and Chelsea have played Porto on the way to the final, City in the group stage, Chelsea in the quarter-finals. Porto may be smarting from losing the league and cup they won in 2020, but they can still look Europe’s elite clubs in the eye. Porto, the club that launched the Mourinho legend, have been European champions twice.
Chelsea’s road to Porto saw them beat newly-crowned Spanish champions Atlético Madrid as well as their La Liga friends Real Madrid and Sevilla. City disposed of a couple of German sides, Mönchengladbach and Dortmund, and Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-finals.
However deserving both clubs are of a final place, it is unlikely that either will embark on a period of Real Madrid-type domination. The Champions League is incredibly competitive among the very top clubs, there are very few surprises and it is difficult for one club to stand astride European football for a lengthy period. Firstly, it’s not easy to retain the title (although Real’s hat-trick between 2016 and 2018 disproves that theory) and secondly, the cup is the target of so many top clubs and managers in the modern age. Pre-UCL, the European Cup could be won more easily as there were not three or four teams from each of the strong nations.
For Manchester City, the Champions League represents the final piece of the jigsaw. They have won everything domestically, have a team of all-stars and money is plentiful, even in these difficult times. In the modern game, City’s aspirations as an elite club can only be totally credible if they make an impact internationally. They are very close to achieving that, but it should be remembered that Juventus did not win their first European Cup until 1985 and Barcelona’s first triumph was in 1992. Success used to take a considerable length of time to cultivate.
For Chelsea, the competition is how all the club’s managers are now benchmarked. Ironically, the one man who was not a marque signing, Roberto Di Matteo, was the coach that won the trophy in 2012. Tuchel may find he comes under more pressure in 2021-22 if he loses against City.
On paper, City are a better team, but Chelsea beat them in the FA Cup semi-final and at the Etihad in the Premier League. Although the Blues have lost some of their vigour in recent weeks, Tuchel has shown that he has changed Chelsea’s expensive squad since Lampard departed. Over 90 minutes, Chelsea can match City, that is evident.
Two English clubs in the final again underlines the financial power of the Premier League’s leading clubs. The “new money” clubs are rising to the top – last season, Paris Saint-Germain, the Qatari-owned club, reached the final, and now Abu Dhabi and Russian money have taken City and Chelsea to Porto. It will not go unnoticed that during a financial crisis for football, these teams have shown they are probably more robust than their peers. In theory, it should be a decent final, but do they know each other just a little too much?