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Why you shouldn't expect a goalfest in this Champions League final

Saturday 29th May 2021
The Champions League final features two hipster managers who arrived at this juncture with an old school football philosophy: above all else, defend.
The Champions League final features two hipster managers who arrived at this juncture with an old school football philosophy: above all else, defend.

In the new millennium at least, Champions League finals have been largely entertaining. You must go back to 2003/04 for a goalless draw. The offending parties were Milan and Juventus who had exported catenaccio to Old Trafford for the occasion. Needless to say, it didn’t take. 

Between that snoozefest and last season’s 1-0 victory for Bayern over Paris Saint-Geramin, every final featured a minimum of two goals scored. Nor did they tend to be lopsided. Both sides scored in all but four of the 16 affairs. 

If you travel back further than 2003/04, you’ll reach the 1997/98 final between Real Madrid and Juventus before you find another one-goal match. The completely forgotten Yugoslavian, Predrag Mijatovic outshone fellow Galacticos Roberto Carlos, Clarence Seedorf and Raul to score the only goal of the match on sixty-six minutes. Didier Deschamps, Edgar Davids, Filippo Inzhagi, Alessandro del Piero and a fella named Zinedine Zidance were on the losing side.

Of course, Manchester United would define the Champions League final with two added-time goals to turn the tables on Bayern with the Red Devils current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer potting the winner in the 94th minute.

The Norwegian’s fortunes in this past Wednesday’s Europa League final aside, we’re not likely to see anything so dramatic in this evening’s final between Manchester City and Chelsea. 

Both sides feature incredibly creative attacking players. City boss Pep Guardiola can call on Kevin de Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero. Similarly, Thomas Tuchel’s goal cupboard isn’t exactly bare with the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Olivier Giroud, Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell, Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner. Marcos Alonso has been known to come up with a timely goal in big matches as well.

Yet for all that talent, it’s defence that led these two English sides to the pinnacle of Europe. Faced with a pair of dangerous opponents in their respective finals, Chelsea and City held Real Madrid and PSG each to a single goal at their grounds and, when the ties came to Stamford Bridge and the Etihad, the result was 2-0 for the home side on both occasions.

City won the Premier League this season with the division’s best defensive record, conceding just 32 goals in 38 matches but stalwart defending was long in coming for Guardiola. John Stones arrived from Everton for a hair over £50 million in the Catalan’s initial transfer window, as did keeper Claudio Bravo from Barcelona for £16.2 million. Until Stones redeemed himself this season, both were considered busts.  On the other hand, £1.8 million afterthought, Oleksandr Zinchenko blossomed nicely.

Come the next season, Pep went all-in, signing Danilo, Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker, Aymeric Laporte and Ederson Moraes for a combined £220.7 million. The Brazilian keeper proved more surehanded and surefooted than Bravo but the backline was never cohesive. Pep stuck with them for a year then made a minor tweak in 2019/20, signing Joao Cancelo from Juventus for £58.5 million but it wasn’t until this year, when he brought in Ruben Dias [Benfica, £58.5 million] and Nathan Ake [Bournemouth, £40.77 million] that it all came together. All told, Guardiola spent £394..27 million on defenders over ten transfer windows before City’s glaring weakness was finally cured. It’s a bit like a fashionably dressed, more courteous Gordon Ramsey throwing his hand made pasta against the wall to see if it’s cooked. However it was accomplished, though, City’s rearguard is finally in that tiny sweet spot nestled between crunchy and too soggy that is perfection.

For their part, Chelsea were the English top flight’s second-best defence, conceding just 36 goals, but that 's only half of the Blues story. Through 19 matches under Frank Lampard, the Blues sat ninth in the table and had conceded 23 goals. Under Thomas Tuchel, the side came together, shipping just 13 goals as they climbed into the Champions League places. Across all competitions with the German in charge, the Londoners kept 18 clean sheets and, save for an aberrant match against relegation side West Brom and a season-ending defeat to Aston Villa, never conceded more than a single goal to an opponent. 

Yes, the two sides played an exciting match at the Etihad in which Tuchel’s lads scored twice in the second half through Hakim Ziyech [63’] and Marcos Alonso [90+2’] to shock the champions, but there really wasn’t anything at stake at the time. City were only denied the title by maths and Chelsea were comfortably in the Champions League places. 

Tonight, everything is at stake. For City, a Champions League title legitimizes all the money they’ve spent. For their manager, it’s proof after a decade of failing that he can conquer Europe with a club other than Barcelona and without Lionel Messi. As a club, Chelsea has less to prove. They turn over players and managers on the chairman’s whim and continue to haul in silverware. Thomas Tuchel is on a similar path toward redemption as his counterpart, however, although it’s only been a year rather than ten since his last final. Regardless, you can believe both coaches will be drilling their sides to defend like they never have before. Thus, if you tune into this Champions League final hoping to see goals, expect to be disappointed.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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