TODAY -

Champions League 2020-2021

Lucky Sapam *



If the Champions League final had been between any other two teams who were not part of the ESL (European Super League) saga then the scrutiny would have been stronger and vicious. Sitting in the executive boxes in Estádio do Dragăo in Porto, Portugal, some of the high profile executives must have watched the match with a tinge of silent acrimony.

The UCL (UEFA Champions League) proponent's task at hand is to project Champions League as the best sport club competition in the world. The ESL proponent counters it by saying that it is the clubs that made the UCL what it is and so they demand a greater share of money and even greater freedom and power.

Caught between this push and pull are the players and the managers of the clubs involved in the ESL who were forced awkwardly to take a stand on the issue publicly. Some of them responded passionately from their hearts while others did it so reluctantly due to the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) factor of portraying themselves as the good people with grounded hearts. But when the game began, it was all about the game.

The build up to the game was intense as usual. But both the managers (Pep Guardiola of Manchester City and Thomas Tuchel of Chelsea) appeared relax and calm and talked in a straightforward manner during most of their routine media interviews. Maybe it was just a tactic of trying to get into each other's head.

"Which one of the two managers do you think wants to win the Champions League more?"- This question seems like an innocuous one. Many will say it is Pep Guardiola because of all the usual reasons (from "Ten years since he last won", to "To prove that he can win the Champions League with other teams other than Barcelona of 2009 and 2011").

But many others will also say it is Thomas Tuchel because of his previous year's Champions League final defeat to Bayern Munich as the PSG (Paris Saint-Germain) manager or perhaps his wanting of the continuation of the German manager's streak of winning the Champions League three years in a row. Ha!

On the expectations scale, though, if Chelsea were to lose, it wouldn't create as an ominous a situation for them as compared to City, who are reaching the final for the first time, losing it. Pep repeatedly and publicly talked about judging the season on either winning or losing the Champions League. He said in February, "I will be judged a failure at Man City without Champions League win".

Having pocketed both the Premier league title and the League cup, the singular focus for Manchester City was the Champions League. In the previous seasons, they couldn't get past the semi final stage at the most. So this final was of great importance for the club as a whole.

For Chelsea (who have already won in 2012), it was a different story altogether, looking at their route to the final. Of course, Chelsea started the season with great ambitions and intent, spending a huge amount of money in the transfer market. With their former player (Frank Lampard) as their manager, their ambitions were as high as any other elite European clubs, that is, to win everything.

But things did not go as planned and after strings of unfavorable results midway through the season, he was sacked prompting even the Chelsea's owner (Roman Abramovich) to openly write a letter, for the first time since owning Chelsea, explaining some of the reasons for the sacking.

So when Thomas Tuchel, former PSG manager, joined midway into the season, their targets became more grounded and realistic- to finish in the top four and possibly with a trophy. For the first part, they achieved it by the skin of their teeth on the final day of the season.

Needing to win the final game against Aston Villa, they shot themselves in the foot by losing the match, but fate had other plans and Leicester City who were also trying to get into the top four too lost their match and Chelsea stood fourth in the table and secured their qualification for the next year's Champions League. And for the trophy part, they came close, but not close enough. They reached the final of FA cup, but lost to Leicester City. 

When the team line-up came out, most pundits were surprised when they saw the Manchester City line-up. Some said, it was 'Typical Pep', trying to be too clever for his own good, while others expected this kind of 'element of surprise' from one of the great managers of all time.

On any other day, you would expect to see a defensive holding midfielder of either Rodri or Fernandinho in the middle of the park giving upright assurances to the forward offensive players to do their thing. But in the final of the Champions League, there was neither Rodri nor Fernandinho.

It was an attacking set up with attacking minded players with the likes of Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez leading the front line. But with no assurance of a hedge, Kevin De Bruyne and İlkay Gündoğan were playing in an uncomfortable setting. They were going forward, but with their minds tied back to defense. They couldn't commit too much upfront because of the fear of a counter attack. City had most of the ball, as usual, but there was no purposeful threat of any significance throughout the match.

On the other hand, Chelsea seemed like a unit who knew what they were doing. Three solid, no-nonsense defenders, Thiago Silva, César Azpilicueta and Antonio Rüdiger supported by the two so called English 'generational talents', Reece James and Ben Chilwell as the wing backs created a formidable five men defensive back line.

In the middle of the park, the frail-looking but talented Jorginho detected and broke the flow of many City's offensive attacks. And the omnipresent Kante, I guess, was indeed omnipresent. Upfront the trio of Mason Mount (another of English 'generational talent'), Timo Werner and Kai Havertz offered meaningful threats, every time they went forward.

With the match underway, the first setback came from Chelsea in around 36th minute. Thiago Silva, who had previously lost the Champions League final with PSG jumped to head the ball away, nothing was evident of an injury, but he immediately felt it and he was substituted in the 39th minute and replaced by Andreas Christensen. And some minutes after the substitution, Mason Mount created the moment of magic when he sliced open the City's formidable defensive duo of Rúben Dias and John Stones with a laser like focus pass to Kai Havertz.

Zinchenko was caught napping and could not handle the pace of Kai Havertz and was left puffing behind. City's goalkeeper Ederson desperately came out from his designated penalty zone and tried to narrow down the angle and block Havertz from advancing further. Ederson knew if he touches the ball with his hand, it's a straight red. He crouched a little and tried to stop Havertz but did not succeed. Once Havertz got past Ederson, it was an open goal. Havertz tucked away the ball with his left foot and scored the goal in the 42nd minute. Going into the halftime break, Chelsea couldn't have asked for more.

Around 56th minute, the blow this time came from City, their talisman, Kevin De Bruyne who collided nastily head to head with Chelsea's Antonio Rüdiger and Kevin De Bruyne had to be eventually substituted and replaced by Gabriel Jesus in the 60th minute. The comeback for City was fizzling away minute by minute into the warm May Porto sky. The 'system' change came only in the 64th minute when Fernandinho came on replacing Bernardo Silva but Chelsea's defensive set up was armored with concrete blocks and barriers.

They absorbed all the attacks and fend away all the city threats with great aplomb. The final roll of the dice was the introduction of Sergio Agüero, who is leaving Manchester City after ten years, in the 77th minute replacing Raheem Sterling. He too could not penetrate the resolute defense of Chelsea and the unlikelihood of a hero-like send-off was becoming inevitable. Kyle Walker desperately puts in a couple of dangerous crosses, but there was no impact.

Chelsea too made a couple of changes with the American Christian Pulisic coming on for Timo Werner in the 66th minute and Mateo Kovačić the former Real Madrid player coming on for Mason Mount in the 80th minute to further strengthen the midfield area in order to stop City inflicting any damage.

90th minute the board went up, 7 minutes extra, a glimmer of hope for City. They needed to go for one final push. They dug desperately and deep in the stoppage time, City's Mahrez could have equalized with his weaker right foot, but he sliced the ball inches above Mendy's goalpost. The City players, their manager and the staffs all knew that was their last chance. 97th minute, the referee blew the final whistle and Chelsea became the Champions of Europe for 2020-2021 winning the match 1-0.

The curtain of the season's competition might be down, but the lingering thoughts for a new system of competition will continue for some time now. Accentuated by the pandemic, the football world is facing a huge contraction in the way of doing business. Some clubs are even more in a dire state than others. It is quite easy to comprehend exactly what the owners want to do and what the fans want.

But the problem is that, there are divergent views on many issues. On one side are the issues of expansion and guarantees, on receiving the deserved share proportionate to the market value and on wanting to maximize and realize the full potential.

And on the other side are on the subject of the centrality of supporters in the club set-up, the inclusion of more voices in the decision making process and of protecting the historic traditions and norms. It's a complicated situation, no doubt, but there is a need to find ways to accommodate and accept the changing circumstances for the greater glory of the game. 


* Lucky Sapam wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at sapamlucky(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on June 02 2021.



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