Manchester City v Chelsea
UEFA Champions League Final
Saturday 29th May, Estadio do Dragao, Oporto, kick off 8:00pm
by John Spillane
The 66th European Cup final, in front of a restricted capacity of 16,500 fans, sees two English clubs fight it out for the third time, following Manchester United's victory on penalties over Chelsea in 2008 and Liverpool's 2-0 success against Tottenham two years ago. For City it is their first appearance at this stage but for the Londoners it will be their third final having picked up the trophy in 2012.
After some disappointments in the knock out stages over the past few years, Pep Guardiola, winner as both player (1992) and coach (2009 & 2011) with Barcelona, is coming off a dominant domestic season, having already picked up two trophies. However unless they pick up the trophy on Saturday night the standards are so high that the season overall will be seen as a disappointment.
Winning five and drawing one in the group stage saw them top the table and progress to the last 32. First up were Borussia Monchengladbach (agg 4-0), followed by Borussia Dortmund (agg 4-2) before getting by last season's runners up Paris Saint-Germain (agg 4-1) giving them a 100% record of six wins out of six. Their system of not playing without a recognised centre forward ("false nine") has allowed them to confuse opponents as the constant movement of their players drags opponents out of position creating space. Kevin de Bruyne is generally the main playmaker, but Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and even Joao Cancelo on occasions can become the prime strategist. The defence, led now by Ruben Diaz, is less vulnerable than in previous years. The role of the ageless unsung hero Fernandinho sees him act as a shield allowing others the opportunity to press forward.
For Thomas Tuchel it will be back to back finals, the first coach to do so with different teams. On leaving PSG at Christmas within a month he quickly stepped into the Stamford Bridge hotseat as a replacement for Frank Lampard. Despite a worrying loss to Aston Villa on the final day of the season which could have seen then fail to finish in the top four he has overseen a rise up the table from ninth place on arrival They also reached the FA Cup final, before suffering a surprise 1-0 loss to Leicester City. By making them tighter at the back they have sacrificed some of their previous attacking verve, but overall results improved. For them to progress further they need to be more clinical on the attacking front with new signings Timo Werner and Kai Havertz adapting slower than expected.
Under Lampard's reign (W4, D2) they too topped their group. Next up were Atletico Madrid (agg 3-0), Porto (2-1 agg) prior to an impressive defeat of Real Madrid (3-1 agg) in the semi-final, (W4, D1, L1). The development of academy graduate Mason Mount into the midfield creative has come quicker than expected and if Chelsea are to be successful he will play a major role. Their strategy though may well be to use City's probable dominance of possession against them. Jorginho's influence is often undervalued and his ability to pick a pass to take advantage of the speed and pace of Christian Pulusic, Werner, Havertz etc...could be decisive.
For both sides the abilities of De Bruyne and Mount from dead balls can't be ignored with Diaz, John Stones, Antonio Rudiger, Kurt Zouma often the targets. Chelsea have stifled City twice in recent months, but Guardiola will have watched and learned and will look to ensure that there is no three in a row. A weakened starting line up in the FA Cup semi final and a last minute home Premier League defeat (after a missed penalty) can be offered up as unusual circumstances. Both coaches have been criticised with Tuchel accused of not being able to win the big games, whereas pre Christmas Pep Guardiola's reputation was taking a hiding. There is unlikely to be much between the teams, but after a disappointing night for the red half of Manchester on Wednesday night it could be a different outcome for the Sky blues with Guardiola joining Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane as coaches with three trophies.
Suggested bet : Manchester City win - 90mins (10/11 at bet365)
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