For the second in three years, the biggest club event in European football will be contested between two English sides. The Champions League trophy, arguably the most popular global showpiece event in club football, will return to England, underlining the Premier League’s status as Europe’s premier tournament.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are 90 minutes away from the trophy they so desperately crave but a Chelsea side transformed in recent months stand in their way in Saturday’s all-English Champions League final in Porto, the Portuguese city which was named as a last-minute host.
It is a match-up that serves as another reminder of the strength of the cash-rich English game.
And these are the two clubs whose own transformations in the last two decades that have done the most to change forever the landscape of the English top flight.
The clubs maybe English, there will be a few big English names on the pitch, but the behind-the-scenes narrative is completely different with two foreign coaches at the helm of the two sides that are run by mega-rich foreign owners.
Not so long ago, the idea of Chelsea and City meeting in the biggest club game of all would have been laughable. Their only previous encounter in a final came in 1986 in the short-lived Full Members Cup, when Chelsea won 5-4 at Wembley.
That was before the Premier League and modern Champions League existed, before Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 and before the Abu Dhabi takeover of City in 2008.
The west London club had a head-start in terms of becoming big-spenders and as a club they have the experience of this stage before, having beaten Bayern Munich on penalties on their own turf in the 2012 final.
They have also won the Europa League twice since then.
City’s crowning moment?
City, though, have never made it this far but are finally here, after 13 years of enormous investment from the Gulf and four previous years of disappointment under Guardiola, the man who was hired principally to win them the European Cup.
After romping to the Premier League title, their third in four seasons, and having also won the League Cup this season, a City side starring the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Ruben Dias are the clear favourites at the Estadio do Dragao.
Chelsea, though, have beaten City twice in the last six weeks, first in the FA Cup semi-final and then at the Etihad Stadium in the league.
They have been transformed since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as coach in January, even if they did finish the domestic season with three defeats in four games including the FA Cup final against Leicester City.
Winning the Champions League has been the long-term goal for City’s Abu Dhabi owners since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover transformed the club 13 years ago.
In their 10th season in the competition, City have finally made it to the final. A decade of disappointment for both the the club and their manager will be quickly forgotten if they make history on Saturday.
Venue change and fans
Of course, Covid-19 casts a shadow over the final, which is only being played in Porto after the last-minute decision to move the game away from Istanbul.
The Turkish metropolis was denied the chance to host the occasion for the second year running after the UK government put the country on its travel red list, making it impossible for fans of either finalist to attend the game from England.
Just like last year when Lisbon was the last-minute solution, Portugal rode to the rescue again, and fans will be there with the country one of the few on the UK’s green travel list.
With Portuguese authorities allowing the Estadio do Dragao to be filled to 33% capacity, there will be 16,500 spectators in total, including 6,000 fans of each club.
Portuguese police have said dealing with such an influx of English fans as the country opens its borders again will be “an operation of great complexity”.
VAR and substitutions
Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz, a 44-year-old Spaniard, will be the man in charge of the final. And, as has been the case through the tournament, there will be VAR in place.
Five substitutions are allowed, with a sixth permitted for each side if the final goes to extra time. The matchday squad will comprise 23 players
- Competing in their first ever final, City have the chance to clinch their first Champions League title. The 1970 European Cup Winners’ Cup is the club’s only continental trophy to date.
- Tuchel is the first man to lead two different clubs to the final of the Champions League in back-to-back seasons
- After winning two titles as Barcelona’s head coach (2009 and 2011), Guardiola could become only the sixth man to have coached two clubs to European Cup success. Only three coaches have previously lifted the trophy on three occasions, and Guardiola would be looking to join that elite list as well.
- Chelsea’s sole UCL triumph came in 2012. And incidentally, they had changed manager mid-season when they lifted this famous trophy last time.
- Chelsea have already beaten City twice under their new coach, a 1-0 FA Cup semi-final victory being followed by a 2-1 away success in the league.
Road to UCL final
Record: Wins: 11, Draws: 1 Loss: 0
Goals for / against: 25 / 4
Top scorer: Riyad Mahrez, Ferran Torres (4)
Semi-finals: 4-1 vs Paris
Quarter-finals: 4-2 vs Dortmund
Round of 16: 4-0 vs Mönchengladbach
Group C: winners
Record: Wins: 8, Draws: 3, Loss: 1
Goals for / against: 22 / 4
Top scorer: Olivier Giroud (6)
Semi-finals: 3-1 vs Real Madrid
Quarter-finals: 2-1 vs Porto
Round of 16: 3-0 vs Atlético
Group E: winners
- “We are quite a similar team to what we were in the past when we were knocked out. The margins and little details this year fell down on our side whereas before it was the opposite. I could not expect a tougher opponent.”
- “When you reach the final of the Champions League you finish part of the process that started five years ago. I’m the happiest man in the world to be here. It’s a privilege and an honour. We are going to try to do our best to do good advertising for football and the best way is to play a good game.”
Kevin de Bruyne:
- “We as players understand the magnitude of the game tomorrow. If you win you’re a hero, if you lose you’re almost a failure.Obviously it has been one of the goals of the club and one of the goals of the players to be there in the game tomorrow. To be on the highest stage in the world is something of a privilege.“Everyone understands the pressure but we should be enjoying this game. Take it as something where you want to perform and show your best.”
- “We have arrived here. This is an incredible achievement and once you arrive you want to be on your very best, but it’s City with Pep on the other side who are maybe at the moment the best in Europe, maybe in the world. It is on us again to close the gap for 90 minutes and the good thing is we did it already. In football everything is possible and in a final everything is possible.”
- “Man City are the benchmark over the past few years, but we are always aware in football you are able to close the gap and we did that twice already.”
- “We always practice penalties when we face a match where it is possible it will go to penalties,” Tuchel said.“We have already identified the guys who should take the penalties for us. We are prepared and if we go into penalties we go in there together.”
Manager’s Corner: Guardiola eyes UCL redemption
A decade on from when he last lifted the Champions League trophy, Guardiola is once again in the final. If there are any doubts over his status as the greatest coach modern football has ever seen, he would love to put those to rest.
Victory over Chelsea in Porto would take Guardiola level with Zinedine Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley as the only men to win three European Cups as coach.
The 50-year-old’s record in 12 seasons at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City speaks for itself. Among his 26 major trophies are nine league titles, three in each of Spain, Germany, England, and nine domestic cups.
At his boyhood club Barca he also conquered the Champions League in two of his first three seasons.
But since masterminding one of the greatest ever performances in a European final to sweep aside Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley in 2011, Europe’s top club competition has been the one blot on Guardiola’s record.
City’s determination to create the perfect project to lure him to Manchester by appointing his former colleagues at Barcelona, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, to top jobs at the Etihad Stadium has been fully vindicated with three Premier League titles in the past four years.
Guardiola has been so revered because he brings a style to go with the substance of hoarding trophies.
Yet the Champions League has continued to elude Guardiola after the early success as persistent tinkering and surprise team selections saw him labelled as a coach guilty of overthinking a series of knockout ties.
City did not even make it beyond the quarter-finals in his first four seasons in charge.
That has all changed this season with the signing of Portuguese centre-back Ruben Dias helping City to boast the tightest defence in the Champions League, while Guardiola’s use of a system without a natural striker has not stopped City scoring freely.
Manager’s Corner: Can Tuchel outwit Guardiola?
Whatever happens in the final against City, Tuchel’s impact on Chelsea has already been significant. At least up until the last few matches, Tuchel’s start has been remarkable and, it can be argued, hardly reflects well on his old side Paris Saint-Germain.
The French giants’ gratitude towards Tuchel for leading them to the Champions League final for the first time in their history last season was not enough to stop them sacking him in December.
PSG have since gone on, under Tuchel’s replacement Mauricio Pochettino, to finish second in Ligue 1 to Lille while going out of the Champions League in the semi-finals to City.
In any case Tuchel came out of that sacking with his reputation intact, in large part thanks to the job he did in taking PSG to last season’s final where they lost narrowly to Bayern Munich in Lisbon.
At Chelsea, he took over a team that was underperforming under Frank Lampard and had an immediate impact – Tuchel has turned the London club into a supremely well-drilled machine with a three-man defence led by his old captain in Paris, Thiago Silva.
They kept 18 clean sheets in his first 24 matches in charge, culminating in the semi-final victory over Real Madrid.
After the difficulties of dealing with a Paris team built around Neymar, Tuchel has been effusive in his praise of the Premier League and the mentality of the players he inherited at Stamford Bridge.
When Tuchel came in, he took over a team that looked unlikely to qualify for next season’s Champions League before leading them to a top-four finish. Now they have the chance to cap it all if they can win Saturday’s final in Porto to give Tuchel the medal he missed out on last year.
It has not all been a bed of roses though, with Chelsea losing three of their last four games, including the 1-0 defeat by Leicester City in the FA Cup final.
Now he is back in Portugal, where he took PSG through two knockout ties against Atalanta and RB Leipzig in the ‘Final Eight’ last season before succumbing to Bayern.
The pressure would have been entirely on a different scale if Tuchel came into this match on the back of a fifth placed finish in the Premier League and needing a win to earn their spot in UCL next season. The last day slip up in the league did not prove costly and his Chelsea side can play with the freedom of knowing this is a one-off clash with no repercussions for next season.
Pep Guardiola on Thomas Tuchel:
“With football, one of the nicest things is talking about it. There’s watching and training and, after that, there’s talk. I would say I learn a lot from Thomas; I learned a lot watching his teams, with our conversations.
“It doesn’t matter if he has a lot of info about us or about me because, in the end, luckily for world football, he cannot play, I cannot play. So, in the end, the guys who are going to decide the final will be the players.
“I have a lot of respect [for him]; I think he is an exceptional, exceptional manager. And that’s all. So of course I want to beat him, like I guess he wants to beat me.”
— via Uefa.com
Recent Champions League winners
2019-20: Bayern Munich (GER)
2018-19: Liverpool (ENG)
2017-18: Real Madrid (ESP)
2016-17: Real Madrid (ESP)
2015-16: Real Madrid (ESP)
2014-15: Barcelona (ESP)
2013-14: Real Madrid (ESP)
2012-13: Bayern Munich (GER)
2011-12: Chelsea (ENG)
2010-11: Barcelona (ESP)
2009-10: Inter Milan (ITA)
2008-09: Barcelona (ESP)
2007-08: Manchester United (ENG)
2006-07: AC Milan (ITA)
2005-06: Barcelona (ESP)
The Champions League final starts at 0030 hrs on 30 May (late Saturday night in India) and will be broadcast on Sony Sports Network.
With AFP inputs