The 2020-2021 UEFA Champions League tournament is at an end, and Chelsea are your winners. Very few people would have predicted that outcome at the beginning of the season. The club only qualified for this season’s Champions League by the skin of its teeth at the end of the previous campaign. This year, they chopped and changed managers halfway through the season. This ought to have been a year of rebuilding for the London side. Instead, it’s become a year of glory.
Nothing should be taken away from the Blues in terms of what they’ve achieved or how magnificent their accomplishment is. This outcome is remarkable for the club’s German coach Thomas Tuchel, who inherited a team in mid-table and serious disarray after the dismissal of Frank Lampard. He rightly deserves all the praise he’s receiving for turning Chelsea into European champions, and he doesn’t want to rest there. He’s told the press that he wants to build an empire at Chelsea, and he intends to compete for the Premier League title next season. Every other Premier League club in England should be wary of that. Despite all of this, though, there’s a general feeling among football fans that Chelsea didn’t so much win the final as Manchester City lost it.
For Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, this ought to have been a crowning moment. City fans had suffered so many European disappointments that when the club finally made it beyond the quarter-finals and then into the finals itself, it seemed as if it were destiny for them to win it. This Manchester City team won the Premier League at a canter and picked up the EFL Cup to go with it. They finished three positions and nineteen points ahead of Chelsea and had also watched Chelsea suffer the psychological blow of losing the FA Cup Final to Leicester. Momentum was with City and so, it seemed, was history. Just as Didier Drogba played the final game of his first spell with the club the night Chelsea won their first-ever European Cup in 2012, this was to be Sergio Aguero’s last game as a Manchester City player. He started the game on the bench and was then thrown on with twenty minutes to spare in the hope he’d write himself a fairytale ending. It wasn’t to be. City couldn’t find a way past Chelsea’s well-drilled backline, and so the goal that Kai Havertz scored on the break proved to be decisive.
There was something different about this Manchester City team and the one that waltzed through most of the league campaign with such swagger. That difference came in midfield. Almost every time Guardiola has named a Manchester City side this season, he’s included either Rodri or Fernandinho in a central midfield role that involves providing cover for the backline. Fernandinho and Rodri do the “dirty work” that allows City’s glamorous forwards to achieve such great success. On this night in Porto, Guardiola chose neither of them. Instead, he went with an “all-out attack” lineup that seemed to take his own players by surprise as much as it did his opponents. City’s starting eleven didn’t seem sure of themselves. By the time Fernandinho was thrown on from the bench, it was already too late.
Nobody quite seems to know why Guardiola did this, but the decision is seen as a big mistake by the wider football world. There’s a suspicion that Tuchel unsettled Guardiola – a man who normally can’t be unsettled – and forced him to deviate from his usual game plan. Chelsea came into this game with a psychological edge, having beaten City in a recent league fixture and also in the FA Cup semi-final. Those results would have been fresh in the minds of every player on the pitch, but perhaps even more so with Guardiola. Unable to countenance the possibility of a third defeat to Chelsea in a little over two months, he threw his tried-and-trusted approach out of the window and gambled instead. It didn’t pay off.
There’s an argument to say that we shouldn’t judge Guardiola too harshly for this. Had the gamble paid off, we’d all be singing his praises instead of questioning his decisions. That’s the harsh reality of every gamble, whether you’re a world-class football manager or an online slots player. If things aren’t going your way when you’re playing slots at Rose Slots NZ, you have only three choices. You can either give up and walk away, keep doing what you’re doing, or vary your approach. Some online slots games reward a change in approach and some don’t, but you rarely know until you try. Manchester City had to play this final, so giving up wasn’t an option. That left the Spanish coach with only two options, and so he chose the latter. Like so many online slots players who decide to “go big” in the hope of changing their fortunes only to see their bankroll disappear, Guardiola must have felt that sinking feeling throughout the second half of the final. His big bet didn’t come in. It was the wrong way to go, and it was too late to do anything about it.
Manchester City did experience some misfortune during the final. Kevin de Bruyne – such an important player for the Citizens – was forced to leave the field with facial injuries that turned out to be a broken nose and a broken orbital bone. His participation for Belgium in the Euro 2020 international tournament this summer is now uncertain. City were always likely to be less likely to score a goal without de Bruyne on the pitch than they were with him, but they were already losing by the time he went off. Riyad Mahrez struck an outstanding volley in the dying seconds of the game, which caught everyone off guard, but it passed barely an inch above the crossbar. City huffed, puffed, and worked hard. It just wasn’t to be. Sports teams tend to make their own luck, though, and Guardiola’s decision-making might not have helped with that this time around. Guardiola and City will come again. The Spaniard has signed a new contract at the Etihad, and the club will spend money on reinforcements over the summer. Next year, they’ll want to go one further. If it does, it’s to be hoped that Guardiola has learned from this misjudged effort.