Manchester City v Chelsea - Grandmasters Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel go head-to-head for Champions League glory
PORTO, one of Europe’s most historic cities situated on the Douro Estuary, will be the venue for tonight’s Champions League showpiece.
The game’s two chief protagonists are unlikely to notice the warm and pleasant evening breeze. They will be deep in studious thought instead.
The venue may as well be the Central Chess Club on Moscow’s Gogolevsky Boulevard as opposed to Portugal as two grandmasters who know each other well in Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel convene again.
The playing surface at the Estádio do Dragão will be green, but it may as well be divided into 64 chequered squares. It is for situations like this that the pair live for – forget fame or fortune.
They once famously discussed tactics over Champagne and wine spritzters at a Munich bar, getting animated in the process during Guardiola’s time in Bavaria – an episode which went down in Bundesliga folklore.
It remains to be seen as to who will be cracking open the jeroboams later this evening.
The on-pitch meetings between them in Germany when Tuchel first managed Mainz before moving onto Borussia Dortmund, and Guardiola was in residence at the Allianz Arena had a distinctly one-sided feel, purely based on results.
Bayern did not lose in five meetings, winning four, but Tuchel planted a seed in the mind of his rival right from their first game in October, 2013.
The records show that Bayern triumphed 4-1, but Tuchel’s Mainz actually led at the break, having limited their rivals to virtually no chances despite having little possession in a 5-4-1 formation which featured two holding midfielders and two wingers who played narrow and pressurised their illustrious rivals.
In defeat, Tuchel – who had previously travelled to Barcelona during Guardiola’s time in charge at Camp Nou to expand his tactical insight – still claimed a tactical triumph of sorts and it was not lost upon his feted opposite number. Respect was gained.
In the Munich return, only two late goals accounted for Mainz, who played a fluid 3-4-3 system and counter-attacked with intelligence. It left another mark upon an impressed Guardiola.
Tuchel has graduated since and has made history this year in becoming the first manager to reach successive Champions League finals with different teams – Paris Saint-Germain and now Chelsea.
Speaking of the number two, Chelsea have won back-to-back matches against Guardiola’s City under Tuchel’s watch and inflicted a psychological blow in the process on the Mancunians.
Chelsea’s performance in stopping their rivals’ hopes of a quadruple in an FA Cup semi-final success on April 17 was something akin to a tactical masterclass.
Guardiola paid a price for making eight changes, days after City beat Dortmund to reach the Champions League semi-finals for the first time, but to say the loss was due to that is being disingenuous on Chelsea and Tuchel.
The pace of Timo Werner exploited City’s high line and it resulted in the breakthrough when he got in behind and set up Hakim Ziyech for the only goal.
Going the other way, Chelsea’s compact system and shape without the ball stopped their rivals from dictating. Their possession levels were also high, almost 60 per cent in the opening half-hour.
Exposing a high line also contributed to Chelsea’s late winner courtesy of Marcos Alonso in their league game at the Etihad Stadium earlier this month, although it was a victory which owed a fair bit to Sergio Aguero’s dreadful ‘Panenka’ penalty.
For City, both results were a warning ahead of the definitive night in their modern history.
A night when victory would see them gain full respect and acceptance from the super-powers of the continent in the shape of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, Liverpool, Manchester United and AC Milan – and send a shiver down their spines in the process.
An evening when City will become deadly serious if they lift the most iconic trophy in club football. The one that Qatar Sports Investment – who have pumped countless millions of petrodollars into the blue side of Manchester – crave like no other.
For a venerated figure such as Guardiola, it is 10 years since he won the Champions League. That is a long time between drinks by his high standards. Too long.
It is an evening where there are intriguing sub-plots wherever you look. Who will prevail between the ‘Stockport Iniesta’ in Phil Foden and Mason Mount, nicknamed the ‘Son of Lampard’ in his early days at Stamford Bridge?
Both are carving out a niche in their own right and are two of England’s great hopes for this summer and beyond.
Two former Leicester team-mates meet in N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez, who prayed at the same mosque in the city and once faced each other in the Derby de la Normandie in the colours of Caen and Le Havre in Ligue 2, now joust on Europe’s biggest stage. It will be tactical, tense and engaging for the connoisseur. A footballing version of chess, in fact.
Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you’ll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click HERE to subscribe.