Not many would have expected Inter Milan to make an appearance in the Champions League final. But a favourable draw, along with a string of sturdy performances have put Simone Inzaghi’s side one win away from a fourth European title.
But Inter will have to deal with a Manchester City side so accustomed to winning that it has become second nature to it. Guardiola’s men are on the brink of completing a historic treble – only the second in English football – having swept through to a third consecutive Premier League title and dismissed its cross-city rival Manchester United in the FA Cup final.
City is unbeaten in UCL this season but has conceded five draws, including two goalless ones, in its 12 games. It has conceded just five goals in the competition this season (the lowest). Meanwhile, Inter has scored just 19 goals, while having conceded 10.
Inzaghi’s Inter is habituated to a 3-5-2 formation, with the wingbacks – Federico Dimarco and Denzel Dumfries – shouldering the major chunk of creative responsibilities through their marauding runs down the flanks. In fact, Dimarco has the joint-most assists for a defender in UCL this season, (Five, along with Bayern’s on-loan City full-back Joao Cancelo), including the one he provided for the goal scored by Henrik Mkhitaryan against AC Milan in the semifinal. Inzaghi’s strategy is underlined by the fact that Inter has delivered the second-highest crosses (219) in UCL, and is only behind City’s 230.
The 3-5-2 formation provides the Italian side with two central forwards – mostly Lautaro Martinez and Edin Dzeko or Romelu Lukaku – who lead the press for it. The midfield trio – usually consisting of Nicolo Barella, Mkhitaryan and Hakan Calhanoglu – squeezes out the space for their opposite numbers. They also provide darting runs forward to stretch out rival defence, creating space for their forwards to step in and receive the ball in space.
The back three, which will in all likelihood have Alessandro Bastoni, Francesco Acerbi and Matteo Darmian, provides solidity. Inzaghi often has one of his center-backs (mostly Bastoni) drive the ball upfield to create numerical superiority in the midfield.
City, too, has cracked, what could be called, a perfect setup that is risk-averse, while ensuring the goals keep coming in, even if doesn’t play to its best. Against Manchester United in the FA Cup final, City never controlled the game like it used to. In fact, United ended the game with more xG (expected goals). But ultimately, it was City which won the final, thanks to two volleyed goals from Ilkay Gundogan.
City’s new pragmatic strategy sees it starting in a traditional 4-3-3. In defence the structure remains the same. But on the ball, Guardiola has broken his pattern, by shuffling English centre-back John Stones into the defensive midfield, alongside Rodri, creating what could be called a 3-2-4-1 shape. This gives City’s army of ridiculously talented attacking midfielders – Jack Grealish, De Bruyne, Gundogan and Bernardo Silva – greater freedom to move around fluidly, exploring half spaces, scoring and creating goals for fun.
And the shining star atop this sparkling Christmas tree is Erling Haaland, who has obliterated goalscoring records in his first season with City and is the top scorer (12 goals) in UCL this season.
What could though prove to be the difference is the bench strength of either side. Inter will have the option of calling up either Dzeko or Lukaku from the bench, depending on who starts.
But it is no match to the resources Guardiola has stacked up in his reserves. Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Julian Alvarez, Aymeric Laporte, Nathan Ake and Kalvin Philips are all stars who might even start for Inter and can make a huge impact as a substitute in what is the biggest game in City’s history.
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