Manchester City has had one ambition above all others for 15 years. Since Sheikh Mansour took over the club, the Champions League is their goal. They have searched over high mountains and through dark forests. They’ve lost in quarter-finals and semi-finals, once in the final itself, thwarted by heroes and monsters, often undone by both themselves and outside opponents. They are one more game out of glory and pass the ultimate test in their own way: Inter, the team that is third in Europe’s fourth best league.
In particularly dramatic moments in sports, it is often said that you couldn’t write the script. Well, you wouldn’t write this one. The story demands that the final stage, the apotheosis of Abu Dhabi’s City project, must have a much grander finale than this one, that the final boss to be vanquished must be a bit more intimidating than a patchwork of things that were popular a few years ago in England: Edin Dzeko, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Romelu Lukaku, Goldie the Blue Peter dog and the Social Democracy.
Can Inter win? Of course they can; The greatest quality of football as a sport is that shocks happen, that the underdog can empathize and thwart the giant. Inter showed by beating Barcelona in the group stage and against Milan in the semi-finals that they are well organised, adept, once ahead, at controlling the pace. Federico Dimarco and Francesco Acerbi have had good seasons and shone in the semi-finals, but it is unlikely that Kyle Walker, who has knocked out Vinícius Júnior, will care about the left full-back, while nothing seems to bother Erling Haaland, certainly not 35-year-old central defender who spent much of his career with Sassuolo.
Inter were comfortably beaten 2–0 by Bayern twice in the group stage, and City easily enough knocked Bayern out in the quarter-finals. The biggest challenge for them in Istanbul is probably their own neuroses – the accumulated scar tissue from Pep Guardiola’s disappointments and any traces of City-itis that remain. That, and, unless transport links have improved dramatically since 2005, when it last hosted the final, to get from the city center to the Atatürk Olympic Stadium.
For both Guardiola and City, this journey has been tough and full of frustration. When he won his second Champions League with Barcelona at Wembley in 2011, it seemed unlikely that it would be another ten years before he reached another final. If City beat Inter, he would become the fourth coach to win the trophy three times, while the 12-year gap between trophies would be the longest, other than Jupp Heynckes (15) and Ernst Happel (13). That said, 19 years have passed between Carlo Ancelotti winning his first European title and his fourth last season, so there is still time for Guardiola to claim the Italian’s record.
During that period, Guardiola was partly thwarted by bad luck – those games where his side had endless possession but somehow failed to convert enough of the myriad chances they created – but also by his own fear of being countered against. and the tactical adjustments he made. to try to prevent that eventuality, his “overthinking.” There was no need to ponder this season.
If City clinch the trophy, the 4-0 victory will be retained, much like Ajax’s 4-0 victory over Bayern in 1973 or Milan’s 5-0 victory over Madrid in 1989, as one of those era-defining matches where paradigms shift and a new reality emerges. This was perhaps the symbolic moment when the petrostate clubs finally surpassed the traditional elites and, by extension, the second effects of the hyper-capitalist model unleashed on football by the inception of the Champions League came home. A journey that began in 1987 with Silvio Berlusconi’s bewilderment that Napoli and Madrid, Italian and Spanish champions, would meet in a first-round knockout match, reached a milestone in Manchester on Wednesday.
This has been coming for a while now. Madrid has long defied logic. City could easily have dealt a similar beating in the semi-finals last season. For all the talk of the comfort of señorio, the self-confidence of the old aristocracy, the individual feats of arms, cavalry charges have no place in modern warfare. Madrid has enough resources and prestige not to just vanish, but it is entirely possible that last season will be seen as a final, barely explainable flowering of that caballero culture.
City, meanwhile, is not only thoroughly modern, but defines modernity. Since the Premier League brought its 115 financial irregularities charges against City, they have not lost. Guardiola has hardly had to change teams. The doubts of the start of the season whether Haaland unbalanced the side have faded. City have established themselves to become an awe-inspiring force, knocking aside anyone who stands in their way, even old superclubs such as Bayern and Madrid.
The goals help, of course, but perhaps the best thing that Haaland has brought City is clarity: there is no need to overcomplicate things. This team may not be a pure distillation of guardiolismo but it’s a great, perhaps unstoppable mix of intelligence and strength. This is what a state project looks like when done right.
Maybe football, whimsical old goddess that she is, has one more trick to play. Maybe Inter will do something wonderful in Istanbul. But it feels like City’s long-delayed European coronation is finally upon us.
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