The final of the 2020-21 UEFA Champions League is here, and after a long season of ebbs and tides, Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will battle it out on May 29 at the end of an unprecedented European season that saw the sport return to football fields across the continent with no spectators.
In a season marred by the European Super League fiasco during its later stages, both finalists received their fair share of backlash for being part of a cabal of 12 teams that proposed an invitation-only, exclusive rich-boys club that would have alienated them from both the game as well as their fans, in a move seen as encouraging of corporate greed and a violation of football’s ethos of merit and inclusivity.
Faced with the imminent threat of suspension from UEFA competitions, nine of the 12 clubs — City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur from England, Spain’s Atletico Madrid, and AC Milan and Inter Milan of Italy — soon withdrew from the project, with the two Champions League finalists being the first English clubs to dither. The nine later signed a letter of apology recommitting themselves to UEFA and agreeing to pay a collective amount of €15 million that will be used to fund youth and grassroots football across Europe.
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Sticking to the basics
Guardiola has had one of the most well-oiled units in Europe over the past few seasons, but his tendency to tinker with tactics in crunch matches has seen City come up short in the Champions League. This propensity to overcomplicate matters has been the major factor behind his lack of continental success after his time at Barcelona. This tampering with the basics has cost City in the Champions League knockout stages before — while accommodating an extra man in midfield to deal with Jurgen Klopp’s high-pressing Liverpool in the 2018 quarterfinals, and not fielding crucial players like Kevin de Bruyne and Vincent Kompany in the first leg against Tottenham Hotspur at the same stage a year later.
This time, the Spaniard stuck to the basics, and the changes worked positively. City won 2-1 away to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) courtesy goals by de Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez. Starting the second leg as the favourite with two away goals from the first, the English Premier League champion took advantage of the absence of PSG star Kylian Mbappe as it maintained an efficient low block with full-backs Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kyle Walker constantly pressing throughout the game, which negated the threat of Neymar and Angel Di Maria considerably.
City’s efficiency on the day showed as PSG had 14 shots at goal but not a single one on target, while PSG’s fullbacks allowed Mahrez and Phil Foden to thrive, the Algerian scoring his side’s two goals.
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A revamped Chelsea
When Tuchel took over the reins at Chelsea in January after Frank Lampard’s sacking, not many would have predicted that the German would reach his second consecutive final in Europe with an underperforming team.
Under Lampard — the club’s all-time leading goalscorer — Chelsea was mostly ineffective and toothless. Tuchel took charge at a time when the side was devoid of confidence and defensively inefficient, but he has done a fantastic job as Chelsea’s star-studded lineup has gelled in his short time with the London club.
Tuchel’s constant emphasis on maintaining intensity throughout the game and resorting to a 3-4-2-1 formation allowed Chelsea to strike a positive balance between defence, midfield and forward play with the fullbacks playing a major role in shifting gears during transitions.
In the Champions League semifinals, Chelsea had the upper hand after a 1-1 first-leg draw with Real Madrid, as it deployed Kai Havertz at the front in the second tie for his aerial capabilities. Chelsea was excellent with its transition play throughout the game as Madrid’s ageing squad had no answer to the London club’s lightning-quick counter-attacks spearheaded by German speedster Timo Werner, who got an easy but much-needed goal to boost his confidence.
N’Golo Kante’s omnipresence in the midfield completely took Luka Modric and Toni Kroos out of the game as Tuchel’s side dished out a compact defensive effort to keep Madrid’s limited attacking threat at bay. Former Chelsea star Eden Hazard, who has had a torrid time at Madrid with injuries, was virtually invisible throughout the game.
A Mason Mount goal assisted by Christian Pulisic late in the second half put the tie to bed as Tuchel led Chelsea to its third Champions League final.