The dust is settled, and after a formidable round of semifinals, the 2021 Champions League Final is set. For these two teams, an epic showdown in the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul awaits in three weeks, where the outright King of Europe will be crowned.
Manchester City (England) 2-0 Paris Saint-Germain (France) – Manchester City advance 4-1 on aggregate
In the first leg, PSG took the lead and dominated the opening half before Man City turned around their fortunes and came back to win 2-1. Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappe were all over the pitch at the start but were nowhere to be found as the match went on. Meanwhile, great play from Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez, as well as a bit of luck, saw Man City snatch the victory. Going to Manchester this week, PSG knew they needed another huge away win highlighted by an outstanding performance from their world-class attackers. However, their hopes were massively dented after it was announced Mbappe had picked up a calf injury and would not start if he can even play at all. Man City, who have never reached the final before, but have capitulated at the latter stages of this tournament on numerous occasions, was tasked with just keeping their composure to ensure their path forward. Overall, the odds were heavily in Man City’s favor, but PSG still could not be written off.
At the Etihad Stadium, the pitch was laden with a mixture of hail, snow and rain in an example of typical English weather, which also added a degree of uncertainty to this already exciting matchup. Even with Mbappe on the bench and Mauro Icardi in his place, PSG burst out of the gates and besieged their opponent’s net, earning a penalty for a handball Oleksandr Zinchenko. Although this was eventually chalked off after VAR showed the ball hit his shoulder instead. Despite having their backs against the wall, Man City professionally played out of the pressure. Then, a genuinely world-class longball from none other than Ederson Santana de Moraes, the goalkeeper, found Zinchenko in acres of space on PSG’s right flank. A low cross found De Bruyne in the center, but his shot was blocked, only to find Mahrez, who slotted the ball away at a tight angle. Just like that, Man City took the lead on the night and expanded their lead on aggregate.
Shortly after, PSG almost equalized when Angel Di Maria’s cross-connected with Marquinho Antonio De Mattos Filho’s towering header bounced off the crossbar. PSG almost scored again once Bernardo Silva lost the ball to Di Maria in a dangerous area. Catching Ederson out of position, Di Maria’s looping shot curled just wide. After that chance, PSG’s hold on the game waned throughout the night. While they would often get into good attacking positions, they did not have the innovative spark to create any clear chances while Man City defended as a unit and barred PSG from even getting near the goal. The Citizens were comfortable with the lead and were able to focus on suffocating the Parisians’ offense. When they had the opportunity, though, Man City was able to counterattack to devasting effect with PSG’s reliable keeper, Keylor Navas, stopping the game from getting out of hand.
Deep in the second half, a quick switch of play saw De Bruyne release Phil Foden to sail down the left flank full speed ahead. After a one-two play between the Englishman and the Belgian, Foden played a low cross across the face of goal to Mahrez, who expertly poked in his second of the night, leaving Navas no chance and solidifying Man City’s place in the final.
From that point on, PSG lost the plot as frustration took over. A sideline scuffle between Di Maria and Fernandinho Luiz Roza saw the Argentine sent off after he intentionally stamped on his Brazilian rival with the spikes of his cleats. Both Presnel Kimpembe and Danilo Luiz da Silva were lucky to escape a red card after terrible tackles on Gabriel Jesus. Subsequently, a series of harsh fouls and fights saw Marco Verratti, De Bruyne and Zinchenko receive yellow cards.
When the match ended, and tempers died down, Man City found themselves in the Champions League Final for the first time in their history while PSG fall just short of European glory yet again. Mauricio Pochettino and his players will be particularly angry with themselves considering how well they played in the first half of the first leg, only to ease their foot off the gas pedal, allowing Man City to overtake them in the tie. While Mbappe did not feature in the second leg, that is no excuse given the immense talent they have on display. Neymar and Di Maria had an abysmal game while Icardi was virtually invisible.
As for Manchester City, Pep Guardiola will be hugely relieved knowing he just pulled off one of the most significant victories of his tenure in England. De Bruyne, Foden, Ederson, Zinchenko, John Stones and Kyle Walker all had matches to remember, but Mahrez and Ruben Dias stole the show. Mahrez was undoubtedly the best player of this round, scoring twice this match, adding to his match-winner last week. On the other end of the pitch, Dias had possibly the best match of his entire career, completely shutting down Icardi and Neymar, blocking shots left and right, closing passing lanes and offering the critical leadership in the backline. After putting in great performances for his team every week, the tough Portuguese center-back has arguably been Man City’s best overall player this season.
Chelsea (England) 2-0 Real Madrid (Spain) – Chelsea advance 3-1 on aggregate
After a well-matched evening in Madrid last week, Chelsea and Real Madrid met again to decide who would meet Manchester City this year’s final. After Christian Pulisic’s calm and collected finish was equaled by Karim Benzema’s masterful volley, the score was set at 1-1 in a deserved draw for both sides. Chelsea had dominated majority of play, but Real Madrid was still in the match. Going into this week’s game, the odds were in Chelsea’s favor as they had the away goal but there existed a huge chance of a Real Madrid comeback considering their experience and the constant threat of Benzema.
While not as harsh as the weather in Manchester the day before, the visiting team was treated to a rather rainy English night as the showdown in London commenced. Chelsea started off having most of the ball, but it was actually Real Madrid with the bulk of the chances of goal. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric both had decent longshots that were saved by the goalkeeper, but it was a quick snapshot from Benzema that would have ended up nestling in the back of the net if not for a spectacular sprawling save from Edouard Mendy.
Minutes later though, the ever-present midfielder for Chelsea, N’Golo Kante, created space for himself by dribbling past Real Madrid’s players like practice cones before playing a swift one-two with Timo Werner. After getting the ball back, Kante sent a through ball to Kai Havertz who chipped Thibaut Courtois in goal. Unfortunately for Havertz, the ball rebounded off the crossbar; fortunately for Werner, he easily headed the ball into the empty net as Real Madrid’s defenders were caught sleeping yet again. While it was an extremely easy finish, someone still obviously needed to score it. Not to mention that Werner, who had a horrid time in front of goal, desperately needed this morale boost. With that goal, Chelsea went up 1-0, relatively against the run of play. Real Madrid almost immediately responded though, as a magnificent cross from Modric was met with a strong Benzema header. Mendy was up to the challenge once again and palmed the shot away with his quick reflexes.
By the time the second half started however, Chelsea turned it up a notch and completely bossed the match, restricting their Spanish opponents to only a few half-chances here and there. A minute after kick-off, a powerful cross from Cesar Azpilicueta found the head of Havertz who sent his shot cannoning off the crossbar for the second time on the night. Real Madrid were left totally exposed in the middle of the park as Chelsea players were able to find space and create chances while Real Madrid defenders were overwhelmed. A header from Thiago Silva sailed over the bar while Mason Mount had a close but off-target shot. Going right down the middle of the park, Havertz was denied a goal yet again following a superb save from Courtois before another great save stopped Kante from scoring as well.
Then, with less than 10 minutes to go, Pulisic subbed on and won a 50/50 ball in the air. Unsurprisingly, Kante picked it and passed it out wide to his American teammate. With a touch of class, Pulisic lured Courtois out of his goal before calmly leaving the Belgian goalkeeper on his backside and crossing the ball to Mason Mount who poked the ball into the wide-open net. With that goal, Chelsea had killed off the game and capped off an incredible performance. When the referee blew the final whistle, the match had ended 2-0 in a scoreline that was relatively flattering to Real Madrid who could’ve lost by a lot more if not for their keeper.
For Chelsea, this was truly a statement win. For a team that experienced an inconsistent start to the season resulting in a managerial change, the coach, Thomas Tuchel transformed this side into a serial winning team after only four months in charge. Mendy proved why he is one of the best keepers in England while the likes of Antonio Rudiger, Silva, Andreas Christensen and others have been stonewalls in defense. In midfield, Kante was absolutely amazing giving a man-of-the-match performance. While Kante’s defensive abilities are well-known, his playmaking skills were highlighted tonight as he created both of Chelsea’s goals. Mount and Pulisic were exceptional as expected, but it was the attack where Chelsea were shockingly outstanding. The summer signings in attack had often been the club’s weakness this season but Havertz played his best ever game in his Chelsea career up until this point. Werner wasn’t perfect on the night but he still scored the opening goal.
As for Real Madrid, this match proves that an experienced spine can only take you so far. As good as Benzema, Kroos, Modric and Sergio Ramos have been this season, they are all past the age of 30 and will not be around for much longer. The supporting cast has not been sufficient enough this season and one needs not look any farther than former Chelsea star, Eden Hazard, who was practically nonexistent this match. If Real Madrid want to surpass this level, as they did in years prior, Zinedine Zidane needs to invest heavily in this squad in the summer.
So now with that is said and done, Manchester City and Chelsea are set to face each other in three weeks’ time. This matchup is particularly interesting, not just because they are both English teams, but that they share a lot of recent history together. Back in January, Man City effortlessly took down Chelsea 3-1 in league play, which contributed to Frank Lampard’s sacking. But a few weeks ago, Chelsea narrowly eliminated Man City in the FA Cup semifinals 1-0. To add even more excitement to this final, Man City will play Chelsea in the Premier League this Saturday in a preview for the Champions League Final. Whether or not these matches will affect the final in a tactical or morale sense remains to be seen, but come the end of this month, the showpiece to decide the King of Europe awaits.