Another season of unforgettable club football comes to a head this Saturday night when Manchester City square up against Inter Milan in Istanbul.
As always with knockout football, the Champions League has delivered a matchup none could have predicted at the start of the season.
City were always a favourite. But the question mark of whether Erling Haaland would fit into Pep Guardiola’s playing system was soon answered in the opening game of his season – a comfortable 2-0 win away at West Ham. Since then he’s been on a scoring demolition path, 58 goals in the same number of games to be exact.
Inter, on the other hand, are the surprise package. Slowly building a side that’s ready for the big stage again, many thought they were still a couple of years off. Add to that a group that also featured Bayern Munich and Barcelona, their chances of progressing deep into this year’s competition looked thin.
City in their third European final, Inter in their sixth, will the experience tell? Here’s how the two clubs reached the biggest game in Europe.
The Italian Job
Starting on the backfoot with a 2-0 loss at home to Bayern, Inter knew they had a mountain to climb to get out of Group C.
But the opening result didn’t cloud their focus, beating Viktoria Plzeň by the same score line, then taking four points from a possible six against Barca to put them comfortably in second place, where they would finish.
In a draw which favoured their half of the competition, they saw out Porto across two legs in the round of 16. Romelu Lukaku’s first leg goal the difference between the two sides.
Benfica were the next test in the quarter-final, and with a two-goal cushion from the away leg, they withstood a late comeback to win 5-3 on aggregate at the iconic San Siro.
A fairy tale semi-final awaited in neighbours and fellow European powerhouse AC Milan. Uniquely sharing the same stadium between the two legendary clubs and fans, it was former City striker Edin Džeko that opened the scoring for Inter in the eighth minute. His goal followed up by another ex-Premier League forward in Henrikh Mkhitaryan just moments later.
Milan’s fans would have been disappointed with the lack of goal-scoring opportunities they carved out in the first 90 minutes, but the second leg showed no signs of improvement despite dominating the ball.
As the minutes ticked by in the final quarter of the fixture, World Cup winner Lautaro Martínez finished off a perfect semi-final for Inter, sending them through to their first Champions League final since they won it back in 2010.
Crowning the Treble
City’s 2-1 win over Manchester United in the FA Cup final last weekend has set Guardiola’s side up to become only the third English side to do the treble, after winning the Premier League in May.
Their route to the final started out with 14 points from their six matches in Group G, beating Sevilla and Haaland’s old side Borussia Dortmund along the way.
Facing RB Leipzig in the first knockout round, a potential summer transfer target in Joško Gvardiol pegged them back in the first leg. Any doubts of a slip up in City’s plans soon faded when Haaland ran riot at the Etihad, netting five in a 7-0 win.
Another Champions League favourite in Bayern were turned over by City in the quarters. The home fans had Rodri’s wonder strike to thank for, sparking the Blues into action to a comfortable 3-0 win in the first leg; the tie finishing 4-1 overall.
Overcoming Bayern was no mean feat, but a semi-final against 14-time European Cup winners Real Madrid was something else altogether.
Whatever Madrid’s form was like in the league didn’t matter, their experience and know-how to win knockout games from nowhere was their real strength. This rang true when the pair met last year in the same stage of the competition, with Madrid somehow overthrowing a two-goal deficit in stoppage time to eventually take the game 6-5 on aggregate.
But there would be no repeat of that storyline this time. After Kevin de Bruyne evened things up in the away leg, City produced arguably their greatest performance under Guardiola in the home fixture, dismantling the current champions 4-0. Two goals from Bernardo Silva and one apiece from Manuel Akanji and Julián Álvarez sent City into their second Champions League final in three years.
It Ends in Instanbul
Producing one of the most historic Champions League finals, the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’, back in 2005 -where Liverpool came back from 3-0 at half-time to beat AC Milan on penalties – the Atatürk Olympic Stadium plays host once again between an English and Italian side.
Boasting a cauldron of noise from its 75,000 capacity, both sets of fans will see their side play in their usual home strip on the night – City in Sky Blue and White; Inter in Blue and Black stripes.
Can Pep add the elusive Champions League trophy to City’s cabinet, also making him one of the greatest managers alongside Sir Alex Ferguson? Or will Simone Inzaghi’s Inter create the underdog story that puts Italian football back where it belongs?
Despite Inter’s resurgence in Europe, we can’t look past the superstar squad that Guardiola has at his disposal. The only question is: will he overthink his selection this time? Their 1-0 loss to Chelsea in 2021 was the catalyst for this debate, but with greater depth of talent and more experience in this team, we can only see City lifting the trophy and completing the infamous treble.
That’s not to say Inter won’t put up a fight. A defensive setup that’s been the hallmark of Italian football will look to compact the space and break on the counter, but once City make their mark the game will spark into life. We’re going with a 3-1 win.
How do you predict the final will go? Get following us across our socials – @jdfootball – as we build up to Saturday night’s match.
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JD Football | November 21, 2023