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Chelsea Conquer the Champions League as Pep Guardiola Revels in What Could’ve Been | The Triangle
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Chelsea Conquer the Champions League as Pep Guardiola Revels in What Could’ve Been

It’s been a long season involving 79 teams from 54 European countries, and the showpiece match in Europe’s premier club competition—the Champions League Final—is upon us yet again. From 79 clubs down to two, English rivals Chelsea and Manchester City faced off Saturday to see who would inherit the crown after Bayern Munich’s triumph last year. Following a rather uneventful yet tense game, Chelsea emerged victorious with a 1-0 scoreline, winning their second Champions League trophy in the club’s history.

Route to the Final

Throughout the 2021 Champions League season, it became clear that both Manchester City and Chelsea were the two best teams in the tournament, especially by the semifinals.

That wasn’t the case in their domestic league, as the two teams both had rough starts in the English Premier League before finding their feet and ending the season on a high note. Chelsea even sacked their manager, Frank Lampard, in January after a slew of disappointing results and hired Thomas Tuchel, who led them to a fourth place finish while also narrowly losing the FA Cup Final. Manchester City, on the other hand, actually won both the Premier League and the Carabao Cup and were looking to complete a treble by winning the Champions League.

In this tournament, Manchester City were drawn into a comfortable group by their standards, alongside Porto (Portugal), Olympiacos (Greece) and Marseille (France). Porto ended up being their only real competition, as Olympiacos and Marseille were very poor this year. In response to Man City’s early-season bad form, Pep Guardiola completely transformed this team into a calculated, conservative side with more emphasis on defense than before. This can be seen in the group stage as Man City topped the group, winning five of their six matches and only drawing the other, all while scoring 13 goals and conceding just one.

In the round of 16, Manchester City were drawn against Borussia Monchengladbach in a matchup where Man City were heavy favorites, given Monchengladbach’s subpar league form. The Citizens again lived up to expectations and eliminated their German counterparts, 4-0 on aggregate—a score that could’ve been much higher.

In the quarterfinals, Man City faced another German side, Borussia Dortmund, though this would be a much larger task given Dortmund’s attacking prowess and Manchester City’s past slipups in this stage of the competition. In fact, in the last three Champions League seasons, Man City had been eliminated in the quarterfinals by a team they were expected to beat. That was not the case this time around, though, and Man City nullified Dortmund’s attackers. A pair of hard-fought 2-1 wins saw the Englishmen progress, 4-2 on aggregate.

Then, in the semifinals, Man City lined up against French giants Paris Saint-Germain, who were finalists last year and fresh off eliminating reigning champions Bayern Munich. After a dominant first half in the first leg, PSG took their foot off the gas and allowed City to slip in. A 2-1 Man City comeback win before an awe-inspiring 2-0 victory in the second leg saw the blue side of Manchester march on the final as possibly the best team in Europe.

As for Chelsea, they were drawn into a group with Sevilla (Spain), Krasnodar (Russia) and Rennes (France). Like Manchester City’s group, there was really only one team that Chelsea had to worry about: Sevilla. Despite the team going through a period of mediocre form in the Premier League, that did not carry over to the Champions League; Chelsea topped their group with ease, scoring 14 goals while only conceding two. They won four matches (which included a 4-0 thrashing of Sevilla) and only drew the other two.

At the very end of 2020, however, Chelsea went on a terrible run, losing five matches across December and January (which resulted in head coach Frank Lampard’s sacking). Former PSG coach Thomas Tuchel was hired as a replacement, meaning Chelsea went into their round of 16 matchup against Atletico Madrid with a whole new manager.

Many expected Chelsea’s run to end here at the hands of the eventual La Liga champions. Fortunately for the Blues, Atletico were going through a poor run of form themselves, and Chelsea were able to run away with a 3-0 aggregate win. In the quarterfinals, Chelsea drew Porto, who were playing some good football but seriously punching above their weight. Despite Porto putting up a good fight and Chelsea’s attack faltering a bit, the Blues advanced 2-1 on aggregate.

Chelsea’s semifinals opponent was none other than Real Madrid, a team who was not in best form but still a formidable adversary, given that no club has won the Champions League more than Real Madrid. In a matchup where Chelsea truly proved their pedigree, Real Madrid were run ragged under the efficient aura of this Chelsea side and eliminated 4-1.

Going into the final, both sides knew each other very well. In fact, even though Manchester City ran away with the league, it seemed that only Chelsea held the secret to defeating them—they had eliminated Man City from the FA Cup semifinals 1-0 before beating them 2-1 in the Premier League last month.

These two teams had a lot in common. Both Chelsea and Manchester City had some of the best defensive backlines in the world, and they each achieved success this season by building their teams on defensive solidarity. Whether it be Ruben Dias for City or N’Golo Kante for Chelsea, each team’s standout player this season was a defensive player. On the other hand, both teams struggled in attack this year as well.

The battle of the minds between the managers was also an interesting story to follow. As was mentioned before, Tuchel had only taken this job in January, without a pre-season and transfer window of his own. With his previous team, PSG, Tuchel actually brought the Parisians to their first-ever Champions League Final, where they lost to Bayern Munich. Now with Chelsea, Tuchel had his own ax to grind.

Pep Guardiola, on the other hand, is one of the best managers of all time, but the one thing that holds him back is this very trophy. Pep has not won a Champions League since 2011 with Barcelona, and he has stumbled in the latter stages of this competition with both Bayern and Man City as of late. But last Saturday, he had the opportunity to finally put those criticisms to bed.

In general, there was no clear favorite for this match. Manchester City had the overall better team so they were slightly more favored to win, but Chelsea were by no means underdogs and had a very real chance of taking the title.

The Final

Hosted in the Estadio do Dragao in Porto (rather than the planned venue of the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Turkey, because of British travel restrictions), the final kicked off under a hot Portuguese sun. To the shock of many, Pep decided to play without a defensive midfielder and instead start Raheem Sterling, even though Sterling hasn’t been playing well lately.

His start almost paid off, though, as a world-class through-ball from City’s goalkeeper Ederson found Sterling who nearly scored in the seventh minute but was extinguished by Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy. Sterling also had a wonderful low-cross that would have reached Riyad Mahrez if not for a great tackle from Ben Chilwell. Another Chelsea defender, Antonio Rudiger, had a game-saving tackle of his own as a square-ball from Kevin De Bruyne found Phil Foden. Foden would have easily slotted the ball past Mendy before the outstretched leg of Rudiger blocked the shot.

City’s lack of a defensive midfielder quickly became evident as Chelsea began to dominate proceedings in parts of the first half. Timo Werner, Chelsea’s striker, has had a hard time in front of goal after transferring from RB Leipzig last summer. Werner could have (and really should have) scored with at least one of three clear chances he had on goal. The first, he completely missed the ball; the second was a weak shot that Ederson effortlessly saved; and the third hit the outer-side netting of City’s goal. Even if Werner didn’t bring his shooting boots, there was one thing he did do, and that was make great runs. Werner worked tirelessly, spreading City’s defense with his strategic positioning.

Then, late in the first half, a diagonal run from Werner pulled both Dias and John Stones towards the left, opening up a gap in the back. A magnificent through-ball from Mason Mount found Chelsea forward Kai Havertz, who was then one-on-one with Ederson. The Brazilian goalkeeper tried to charge the ball, but a deft touch from Havertz took the ball around Ederson and another sent it rolling into the empty net, sending Chelsea up 1-0.

Aware of their defensive strength, Chelsea went into the second half knowing all they had to do was sit back and protect their lead, only going forward to attack if there was an opportunity. Man City, who were already uncharacteristically struggling to create chances, were dealt a heavy blow when Antonio Rudiger blocked the ball from Kevin De Bruyne by throwing his shoulder into De Bruyne’s face. De Bruyne, who is City’s best attacking player, was then forced to leave the field after he suffered slight facial fractures and a swollen eye, blocking his vision.

After changing the formation and subbing on different players, Man City held all ball possession as they desperately tried to score. City thought they had a penalty when a shot deflected off Chelsea fullback Reece James’ arm, but the referee did not call it. Ironically, it was actually Chelsea who had the next best chance to score as a great run on the counter-attack saw Havertz find Christian Pulisic, the American star himself, whose shot just sailed wide after excellent positioning from Ederson.

As the clock ticked closer and closer to the end, Man City threw everything they had at their London opponents, but in all honesty, they never looked like scoring. Foden had a poked-shot blocked by Andreas Christensen, and Sergio Aguero had a dangerous cross saved by Mendy in goal.

The best chance, however, fell to Riyad Mahrez in the final minute of the match. After a throw-in, the ball pinged around before falling to Mahrez outside the box, who sent a finessed volley towards goal. Everyone in the stadium stood completely still for a half-second—Chelsea fans, Man City fans, even Edouard Mendy—as the ball gracefully floated over his head. Luckily for Chelsea and their supporters, the ball dipped and fell just behind the net, not in it, as they all breathed a sigh of relief.

And just like that, referee, Mateu Lahoz, blew the final whistle, ending the match and confirming Chelsea as the champions of Europe for the second time in their history after their previous unexpected victory in 2012.

As harsh as it may sound, this defeat wholly falls on Pep Guardiola and Manchester City’s players. After tearing up the Premier League, the pressure was on them to finally break their duck and win their first European crown. Instead, the City players looked unsure of themselves, too scared to lose rather than motivated to win. They were far from the side that brushed aside all opposition ahead of them throughout the year.

Pep himself immediately received backlash for switching the lineup right before the match. Throughout the season, City has always played a 4-3-3 formation, with either Fernandinho or Rodri as a defensive anchor. For this game only, Pep instead decided to play a strange 4-2-4 formation with four forwards (but no striker) and two attacking midfielders. Pep possibly played this formation to overwhelm Chelsea’s defense with attackers, but this had the opposite effect, as Ilkay Gundogan was too occupied with covering defensive ground to go forward while City never fully controlled the tempo to carve out enough chances. An out-of-form Sterling also started on Pep’s call.

For all his achievements, Pep Guardiola’s Achilles heel has been overthinking big Champions League matches; just last year he played a City team without a defensive midfielder in the quarterfinals, which saw Lyon shockingly beat them. In 2019, Pep benched De Bruyne in the first leg of the quarterfinals, and Tottenham won 1-0. Even in 2018, similar formation tinkering saw Liverpool beat City 3-0 in the quarterfinal first leg.

While Chelsea may not have been the absolute best team, they were the smartest and most professional team in Europe this year. Tuchel has elevated his reputation as one of the best current managers while he righted his wrongs after losing last year’s final. PSG fans may feel a little irked knowing the manager they just sacked midseason went on to win the Champions League while their own team still looks for their first European title. Frank Lampard will feel both proud and saddened that this crop of players he coached and nurtured finally reached major success—just without him. And for us Americans, we are extraordinarily proud that Christian Pulisic is a Champions League winner. Pulisic is only the second American to do so and the first to play a major role in the campaign.

For the rest of us, yet another wonderful season of European football has concluded, reminding us of why we love this sport so much. Now, time for the summer and international football.