Rodri kisses the FA Cup after their win at Wembley

Rodri ready for Manchester City’s final exams with Champions League in sight – The Guardian

Rodri has the gleaming gold of an FA Cup winners’ medal around his neck and the lettering on his dark Manchester City T-shirt frames it all: “June 3, 2023. CUP WINNERS. Kings of the city.”

It’s Saturday night at Wembley and what most people had foreseen – not just the boys in the City kit – has come true. With Rodri once again imperious in midfield, lavish in the form of his life, City have beaten Manchester United to complete the League and Cup Double. It’s a sensational achievement and yet one that no one has really stopped to acknowledge.

That’s because City isn’t finished yet. They are King of England for the fifth time in six seasons and how delighted their supporters let everyone know that Manchester was blue after the cup final. But it’s where they want to go, the last leg of the journey, that enslaves them.

“I think Pep [Guardiola] said you won’t be ‘big, big’ if you don’t win in Europe,” said Rodri, looking forward to Saturday’s Champions League final against Internazionale in Istanbul. “It’s the exam we have to pass.”

For City, everything revolves around the Champions League. It’s been all season and, frankly, for many seasons. Domestic dominance is a beautiful thing and Guardiola has 11 major trophies in England with City, plus two Community Shields. But if the manager has long known that he must win in Europe’s elite league to take his legacy to the highest level, it is enlightening that he is now saying so easily. It reveals a confidence.

Guardiola is ready and so are his players. They drew strength from the near misses in the Champions League, most notably the defeat to Chelsea in the 2021 final. Before this season’s quarter-final first leg against Bayern Munich, Ruben Dias had thought about it philosophically. “As a very wise man said to me: ‘We didn’t lose the final. We just got one step closer [to winning it],” said the central defender.

Rodri nods. “I would say the same,” he says. “I think to win you have to have lost before. To have a winner’s mentality in the Champions League, you have to be there in the semi-finals, hit the finals. That’s the good point of this team. For the past six, seven years, we’ve touched the semi-finals and the final. It’s the only way to perform and win. We’re on that road. The effort of the team this year has been incredible. We can win it.”

The city’s strength comes in part from what they have in reserve. They’re not the deepest squad in terms of numbers – Guardiola has relied on 21 players since the end of January – but none can match them in terms of quality. It was certainly a terrifying exercise comparing their substitutes’ bench to United’s at Wembley.

When City signed Kalvin Phillips from Leeds for £42 million last July, they got a quality midfielder, one of the stars of the England team. There’s been a lot of focus on Phillips’ difficulties this season, but there’s a big reason he’s been so peripheral: Rodri.

Guardiola started the Spain international 34 times in the league and in 10 of the club’s 12 Champions League matches, including all knockout rounds. Rodri responded to Phillips’ threat and just smothered it – very much on brand with what the team is doing to their opponents.

Has Rodri ever played better? “I don’t think so,” he says. “I feel at the best moment – physically, mentally, the way I understand the game, the way I feed the team. I try to help my teammates all the time, but I try to grow every game, try to learn about the past.”

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Rodri can’t ignore what happened and doesn’t want to. For the semi-final of the Champions League against Real Madrid, he returned to the corresponding game of last season’s competition, in which City lost in such a heartbreaking way. Revenge, he said, was a motivation. The city would get it.

“It’s my fourth year here in England and when we win, when we lose, finals… everything you can learn from,” says Rodri. “I feel like a more mature player in these situations. Is the 2021 final a lesson? As I tell you, we try to learn a lot from the past.

“I think the desire… how we played against Real Madrid, for example after a defeat against them last year. So we’re going to play the same way, try to fix the situation, come back out of the situation and try to win the final .”

Like Guardiola, Rodri talks about focus and humility from match to match. But now there’s only one game, one title left. “Of course, it [the treble] is there,” he says. “It’s something we dream of. We’re going to prepare the match as it is: a final against an Italian team, [who play with] five at the back… so, so tough, always demanding.

“We have to be confident in ourselves, but not relaxed. What we have to put on the field is the effort, running. Then football comes along.”

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