By Samindra Kunti
May 30 – In a dramatic Champions League final, one of the best European Cup finals for a number of seasons, Chelsea, N’Golo Kante and Kai Havertz out-manoeuvred and outperformed Manchester City and Pep Guardiola’s experimental tactics to win 1-0 and clinch the continent’s premier club competition for a second time.
Saturday’s final underscored that this is very much the age of super clubs, who represent the very best and the very worst in the global game, but empire-building is not for the faint-hearted.
In 2003, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea, signposting a new dawn in European football. Five years later, the Abu Dhabi United Group took over City from Thai Thaksin Shinawatra and, suddenly, football was of interest to state powers, but even after mammoth investments the ultimate prize in European football remains elusive for City.
Pep Guardiola’s idiosyncratic tendency to experiment in major fixtures backfired completely in Porto. At kick-off, the City manager’s first eleven didn’t feature a holding midfielder. Instead, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Ruben Dias were left to marshal the defence with left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko tucking into midfield alongside Ilker Gundogan, who played in the number 6 position.
It was ironic then that N’Golo Kante, a defensive midfielder, dominated the final. The Frenchman has become a total midfielder whose intelligence allows him to excel going forward and he was at the heart of Chelsea’s transformation under Thomas Tuchel in the second half of the season.
Chelsea’s 90 minutes were a symphony of team work and application in all sectors off the field. In the 42nd minute, they were rewarded with Kai Havertz’s goal, an assist from Mason Mount carving open whatever was left of the City defense. Out of position, Zinchenko failed to close down the German, who’d go on to score what would prove to be the winner.
As much as the first half had been an open, box-to-box encounter, the second half settled down in a simpler pattern with City probing and poking but never getting beyond creating some ‘sterile’ pressure. Chelsea had no problem in dealing with City’s excess of attacking-minded players and to compound Guardiola’s misery his lodestar and captain Kevin De Bruyne left the field in tears in the 59th minute after a body check by Rüdiger.
For much of the evening, the Belgian midfield metronome was ineffective, playing in the false nine role. He watched on from the bench before being escorted to hospital where multiple facial fractures were revealed. City remained toothless and impotent until the very end, until even the seven minutes of injury time offered no solace or an equalizer for Guardiola’s team.
The win was an absolute triumph for Tuchel, who reached the final of the Champions League with Paris Saint-Germain last season before he was dismissed in the French capital in January. Somehow, amid all the chaos, Chelsea, a club that over the years has become a graveyard for top coaches, has won the competition twice now. The current campaign mirrored Chelsea’s 2012 win against Bayern Munich when Roberto Di Matteo stepped in to guide the Londoners to their maiden European Cup. In the season that followed, the Italian was dismissed at Stamford Bridge.
Guardiola need not fear for his future at the Etihad Stadium. He was hired to win Abu Dhabi the Champions League, but within reach of the holy grail the club fell short in no small part because of the Spaniard’s bizarre team selection. Even so, after years of investment City will not give up on their quest to win a competition that almost seems to demand too much from the club.
A similar sentiment will be shared by PSG, who exited the competition in the last four. French media report that the Qatari backers of the Parisians will free budget for the club to spend this summer and reinforce their squad in a bid to reach the final again.
Empire-building requires time and money, but as Chelsea and Abramovich have shown – it can be done in ruthless fashion as well.
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