PORTO, Portugal — Manchester City’s players did not seem to want to leave. Not right away, at least. They stood, as if frozen in place, as Chelsea’s players heaved the prize City craves more than any other into the air. They could not go. To go, after all, would be to accept that it was real, that it was over.
They had found themselves on the far side of the field at the Estádio do Dragão, silver medals draped around their necks. To get to the mournful safety of the locker room, they would have to walk past the seats that had, only a few minutes earlier, contained the massed ranks of their fans, hoping and willing that City might find a goal, that it might find salvation, that it might win a Champions League final it would go on to lose to Chelsea, 1-0. The seats were all but empty now. The fans had not stuck around to watch, to wallow.
Slowly, the players mustered their last vestiges of energy and began their long, sorrowful march. Several were on the verge of tears. Several more were long past the verge. Others seemed glazed, scarcely able to move, as if they were buffering, trying to process what had happened, what this meant.
It was just as they started to move that the fireworks went off, crackling and glittering and thudding into the sky. Soon, City’s whole team and its staff members were obscured, swallowed whole by a great cloud of cordite by fireworks that were supposed — were expected — to be for them. That is the thing about soccer, about sports. Sometimes, things do not turn out like they should.
In a lot of ways, Chelsea and Manchester City are two sides of the same coin. They are the vanguard of the money that has swept into soccer over the last 20 years, brought by hedge funds and vulture capitalists and oligarchs and nation states. They are, depending on one’s perspective, either the great insurgents or the nouveaux riches.
But they are, at the same time, fundamentally different. The Chelsea of Roman Abramovich has always embraced chaos. It has now won the Champions League twice, both times in seasons in which it changed its manager at the slightest hint of disappointment, in seasons when its ultimate triumph made little sense.
The Chelsea that was champion of Europe in 2012 was managed by Roberto Di Matteo, who won the trophy without his captain and with a debutante left back. The Chelsea that repeated the trick in 2021 has a squad that is both vastly expensive and curiously incomplete. Its leading goal-scorer, domestically, is a defensive midfielder who only shoots, really, when he takes penalties. Its main striker does not score goals. He does not, at times, look like he knows how.
Manchester City, by contrast, is a monument to control. In the 13 years since it was taken over by a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, it has sought to perfect every single aspect of being a soccer team. It has worked under the assumption that success is, effectively, a formula: that if all of the variables are regulated, winning is inevitable.
And so City is the benchmark: it has the best youth academy, the best training facilities, it has a playing style that unifies the club from bottom to top. It has the most data and the biggest scouting network, it has the deepest squad and the greatest manager and the most sophisticated commercial operation and the largest network of sister clubs.
None of it has come cheap. Quite how much all of it has cost is not possible to put a precise figure on, but it has cost not far off a couple of billion dollars, at the very least, to transform a soccer team that was a byword for disappointment into a gleaming advertisement for the modernity and mastery of its backers.
It has worked. Under Pep Guardiola, City has risen to become the dominant force in English soccer. For three of the past five years, it has probably — by most metrics — been the best team in Europe, whatever that means, really: the most complete and the most consistent, the one with the highest ceiling.
It is a constancy that has always evaded Chelsea, always too turbulent, too impatient, too comfortable with change. And it has been achieved by translating the control that defines the club into its playing style. Guardiola wants not just to have possession of the ball, but to have ownership of space itself: to dictate where passes go and where players do.
All of it, each meticulously-selected piece of the puzzle, had been done with this moment in mind. The Champions League represents the ultimate fulfillment not just of Guardiola’s vision, but City’s. It is justification for all of that investment, vindication for all of those ideas, and it is reward for doing all of those things right.
There is just one flaw. Success is not a formula. Not this sort of success, anyway, the success that relies on an alignment of the stars and the rub of the green and the minutiae of countless little moments. That is the undeniable, untameable nature of sport: that, in the end, there is always something that you cannot account for, something that you cannot control. That, sometimes, things do not turn out the way they should.
And so, in the game that represented that manifestation of its destiny, Manchester City sought to exert a supreme, almost obsessive, control, and found only chaos. Guardiola named a team full of attacking midfielders — one at left back, three in midfield, two more upfront — with the aim of starving Chelsea of first the ball and then hope. In the event, it was City who seemed frantic, uncertain, whizzing and whirling round the field at breakneck speed to try to slow down the game.
It lost because Chelsea was the precise opposite. It is only six months since Thomas Tuchel, its coach, was fired by Paris St.-Germain, unable to recover from losing the Champions League final last season. He was tasked not only with replacing Frank Lampard, a beloved club legend who many fans thought deserved more time to prove his worth, but with shaping some sort of identifiable team from the morass of gifted, but drifting, players he inherited.
He was told to fashion order from chaos, and this was his ultimate, his irrevocable proof. City barely laid a glove on Chelsea. It found its every path blocked, its every idea pre-empted, its every thought read. As Guardiola’s team grew more frenzied, Chelsea held its fire, bided its time, and waited for the moment to strike.
Its chance came just before halftime. For all those midfielders in Guardiola’s lineup, not one of them was in the vicinity of Mason Mount as he picked the ball up in his own half. Timo Werner, the nonscoring striker, darted into a channel, dragging City’s central defenders from their positions. Kai Havertz sprinted into the gap. Mount found him, and he bore down on goal, unencumbered, unaccompanied.
That was enough. That was all Tuchel’s team needed. It would be Chelsea’s players, at the end, running around the field, running to their fans, running on fumes and on adrenaline, running nowhere in particular, running because joy that pure, that uncut, the joy of a dream realized, is beautiful chaos.
And it would be City’s on that long march past those empty seats, through that cordite cloud stinging eyes already raw with tears, slowly coming to terms with the fact that — for now, at least — it is real, and it is over. This is the game they were gathered to win, the trophy that is the club’s ultimate purpose. This was their moment. But that is sports. Success is not a formula. Sometimes, things do not turn out as they should, as you expect. Sometimes, there is just a little bit of chaos.
It’s over! Chelsea has won its second Champions League title, delivered by a Kai Havertz goal in a thrilling, taut final marred by a head injury that forced City’s playmaker, Kevin De Bruyne, from the game in the second half.
Chelsea’s title is its second in the competition. Its previous win came in 2012.
Defeat will be yet another bitter disappointment for Manchester City, which was playing in its first final after a decade in which its spending, its acquisitions and its ambition have lifted the quality, and the budgets, of teams across Europe.
The United States midfielder Christian Pulisic, who came on for Chelsea as a second-half substitute, became the first American to play in the final. He is not the first American player to lift the trophy, however; that honor went to Dortmund’s Jovan Kirovski in 1997.
He sought out his family after the game.
90’ + 6
Riyad Mahrez sidefoots a volley wide. Could that have been the last chance?
Seven — yes SEVEN — minutes of injury time coming. Much of it the result of the injury to De Bruyne. The question is: Is it enough for City?
Chelsea’s crowd has filled the Estádio do Dragão with its voices now. They can taste it.
Agüero fails to convert one chance and can’t latch on to another ball sent deep. He and Jesus and buzzing, but the clock is ticking.
Chelsea would have been waiting for one chance to settle this. Now, Thomas Tuchel might have to worry that it has come, and gone, without being taken. Kai Havertz did brilliantly to lead a counterpunch, and then slipped Christian Pulisic — the first American ever to play in a men’s Champions League final — through on goal. He was slightly off balance, and could not quite control his finish.
With somewhere in the region of 10 minutes left, Chelsea will be expecting a Manchester City siege. It will have as its spearhead Agüero, the club’s greatest ever striker, the man who scored the most significant goal in its history, in his last ever game for the team he has graced for a decade.
That’s an awful lot of narrative power coming off the substitutes’ bench.
Mateo Kovacic, who won two Champions League crowns at Real Madrid without kicking a ball in the final, replaces Mount.
Sergio Agüero, who scored one of the most famous goals in Manchester City history and is playing his final game for the club, comes on for Sterling. Could he reprise his role as Agüeroooooooooooooooooo!
Pulisic comes close!!! He and Havertz took off at the City defense, and the German fed the American. But Ederson charged out to close the distance, and while Pulisic got off a shot, it rolled across the yawning goalmouth and wide.
Pulisic is up next to the fourth official. He’s on; Werner off. That makes Pulisic the first American man to play in a Champions League final (nine American women have done it).
Like Kanté’s defensive role, Pulisic’s ability on the counter could be perfectly suited to this situation evolving in the last half hour.
Fernandinho will play after all: He comes on for Bernardo Silva, and will drop into his normal defensive role.
Everyone else, one assumes, will be instructed to push a little higher, secure in the knowledge that he will handle the defensive business in front of the back line.
Shouts for a handball by City, but the referee has spotted the incident and — correctly — rules that a shot that hit Reece James in front of the Chelsea goal hit his chest and then his arm. No handball because of that bang-bang contact.
De Bruyne can’t continue. He leaves in tears, and clearly dazed. Terribly sad for him, for City and maybe for Belgium, which is counting on him for this summer’s European Championship.
But his day is done. Gabriel Jesus sprints on to replace him.
A violent collision leaves Rüdiger and De Bruyne on the turf after the former used a body block to keep the latter from executing a give and go in midfield. De Bruyne stays down a bit longer, and he really looks to be dazed.
Rüdiger went down hard, too, and rises to receive a yellow card for his foul. He’ll have to be careful, but at the moment City’s concern is its playmaker, lying on the grass near the center circle.
Kanté tracks, and takes down, De Bruyne with a perfectly timed tackle. The French midfielder is one of the most tireless, most effective, most quietly valuable players in world soccer — a man with a motor that never quits and uncommonly good instincts and timing.
This game is perfectly set up for him to be a star now. Just by being himself.
We are back underway and it takes City less than a minute to win a dangerous free kick. But Chelsea’s back line presses up just before it is taken, and City’s effort lands in Kanté’s lap. He clears.
Chelsea’s goal confirmed the main lesson of the first half: Manchester City is being exposed too easily at the back.
For all those midfielders Pep Guardiola has named, not one of them was anywhere near Mason Mount as he picked up the ball inside his own half. Timo Werner’s clever run parted the defense, and Mount had all the time he needed and all the space he could aim for to slip Havertz through. The goal was the young German’s first in the Champions League. Not too bad a time to score it.
Expect City to roar back at Chelsea in the second half. But that creates a further risk, because Tuchel’s team has looked extremely dangerous on the counterattack today. This first half has been a lot of fun. The second is set up perfectly to be better.
Stunner. Kai Havertz latches on to a beautiful, incisive through ball from Mason Mount, splitting the City defense, takes a touch and gives Chelsea the lead.
What a stunning turn of events, just after losing a key defender, just before halftime, just as City would have been loving its chances.
Instead, Chelsea stretched them with a single ball. Guardiola looks stunned.
A few minutes later, our Spanish referee blows the whistle for halftime. City’s defenders begin their inquiry over just that how that happened, and Chelsea’s fans sink into their seats in relief.
The second half could be FUN.
Thiago Silva, back in the final with Chelsea a year after losing the final as a member of Paris St.-Germain, is off. He came to the sideline for treatment a few minutes ago and now is down again. His day is done in the 38th minutes, and he looks crushed.
Andreas Christensen, who hasn’t played in three weeks, sprints on to replace him. His task — stopping a City attack that has smelled blood several times — is not a fun job to get on a moment’s notice.
As a rule, finals involving teams from the same country are not especially enthralling. The teams know each other too well. The stakes are, if anything, too high. Judging by the first half hour, this will stand alongside the all-German affair in 2013 as an exception. It has been breathless and frenetic and surprisingly open.
That was to be expected from City, of course, after we saw Pep Guardiola’s lineup, but Chelsea has responded in kind. Indeed, if anything, it has had the better of the chances to take the lead. Timo Werner alone has had three. It will be of no great surprise to anyone who has watched him this season that he has scored none of them.
City, on the other hand, has looked nervous. Not in an error-prone, cautious sort of way, but in a frenzied and frantic kind of way. Everything is a little too quick, a little too hurried. Raheem Sterling, a surprise inclusion, has carried the greatest threat, but there is a need for more haste and less speed. City’s success this season has been rooted in its patience and its composure. It could do with just a touch of that here.
Ilkay Gundogan picks up the game’s first yellow card, for a late and high challenge in midfield.
Chelsea’s center back Thiago Silva, meanwhile, has limped to the sideline and is having his thigh looked at. This could be big; he marshalls Chelsea’s back line.
Staring down Raheem Sterling knowing he is about to turn the corner and speed away from you must be one of the more scary, sinking feelings in soccer. Chelsea’s right back, Reece James, just got a taste of it, but he was able to backtrack and nick the ball away just as Sterling entered the area.
Guardiola, meanwhile, is already looking for solutions, for changes, for a way in. He just ordered Phil Foden to press higher, and more centrally.
City remains on the front foot at all times, though; every time Chelsea surrenders the ball, City’s forwards are driving straight at them again.
That is three early chances for Timo Werner, who has been surprisingly active and, perhaps unsurprisingly, more threatening than truly dangerous. That has been the knock on Werner all season: that he gets a lot of chances but converts far too few of them. The theme is continuing today.
Proving City is dangerous and attack-minded from literally every position on the field, its goalkeeper, Ederson, cuts out everyone in front of him with a single, long ball over the top ahead of a speeding Raheem Sterling.
Sterling’s first touch fails him, though, and the first really dangerous chance is lost. But we’re suddenly going end to end.
City’s attacking lineup is showing some patience in the opening minutes. They will want to stretch Chelsea a bit, and the Blues know it. They have kept their shape as tight as they can early on, pressing the outside backs and trying to keep the ball in City’s half, not their own.
Manchester City kicks off in its traditional light blue with white shorts. Chelsea is in royal blue.
And extending a moment that has taken place all season, the teams kneel before the game begins, continuing their campaign for social justice efforts.
Manchester City fans’ simmering dislike of UEFA, despite an emerging peace between the club and the organization after City helped kill the Super League, has not been erased by reaching the Champions League final.
Boos rang out from the section holding City fans when the tournament anthem was played.
If Pep Guardiola is to win this, then, he is clearly going to do it his way. Manchester City’s lineup is pure, undiluted Guardiola, the very essence of what he believes to be soccer’s highest form: a team made up, almost entirely, of attacking midfielders.
There is an attacking midfielder at left back, three attacking midfielders where you would expect to find them, in midfield, and two more attacking midfielders in, well, attack. That means there is no room for Fernandinho, so often the calming influence on this team, or for his understudy, Rodri. Guardiola has decided to look forward, rather than back, to trust his players to hurt Chelsea more than Chelsea can hurt them.
It is not the first time he has done this; Guardiola’s selection for Barcelona, in his first final in 2009, raised eyebrows, too. That night in Rome, he played Lionel Messi as a false nine, and in one fell swoop shifted soccer’s Overton Window. It was not the first time Messi had played there — and Messi was not the first player to take on that role — but to do it on such a stage was confirmation it was no longer a trick, an option, an experiment. It was a statement of belief in his principles.
This selection could have much the same effect. This may be the culmination of the third iteration of Guardiola’s vision of how the game should be played. If City wins, of course.
And that is the risk: Guardiola’s record of changing his approach in the Champions League is mixed, at best. His players have intimated that now is not the time for testing out new ideas, for bold leaps into the future. City should be superior to Chelsea. Asking his players to feel their way into a new system in the biggest game of them all could — emphasis on could — dull that edge slightly. It is a brave time to take a risk. That, though, is Guardiola’s way. And he always does it his way.
Manchester City, perhaps eager to just get on with it already, released its lineup early.
Manchester City’s XI: Ederson; Kyle Walker, Rúben Dias, John Stones, Oleksandr Zinchenko; Ilkay Gundogan; Kevin De Bruyne (C), Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden
The only thing that might qualify as a surprise is that defensive midfielder Fernandinho, so often the grit and bite in City’s midfield as it goes forward, starts on the bench. So does Sergio Agüero, playing his final game for the club.
Here we go 😅
XI | Ederson, Walker, Dias, Stones, Zinchenko, Gundogan, De Bruyne (C), Bernardo, Mahrez, Sterling, Foden
SUBS | Steffen, Carson, Ake, Jesus, Aguero, Laporte, Rodrigo, Torres, Mendy, Fernandinho, Cancelo, Garcia
— Manchester City (@ManCity) May 29, 2021
Chelsea followed minutes later, and the news is that Thomas Tuchel starts with Timo Werner up top and supported by Mason Mount and Kai Havertz. Christian Pulisic, the midfielder who is expected to become the first American to play in the final, assumes his usual role of substitute.
“It was a tough choice to leave him out,” Tuchel said, adding that he had warned his players there would be many such choices today. “But he is very strong off the bench.”
Chelsea’s XI: Edouard Mendy; Cesar Azpilicueta (C), Thiago Silva, Antonio Rüdiger, Reece James; Jorginho, N’Golo Kanté, Ben Chilwell; Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Mason Mount
Ask any English soccer fan — any European soccer fan, for that matter — for the first word that comes to mind about today’s finalists and you’ll probably get the same answer: money.
But while money is absolutely part of the reason these teams are in this final — and why this might not be the last time we see them here in the near future — dismissing each team because they have a lot of it doesn’t give a fair picture of what they have built.
Manchester City recently won its third Premier League title in four years, and it has been setting a new standard for excellence in England and beyond (though notably not in the Champions League) for about a decade.
Most non-City fans sneer at the club’s success, dismissing it (perhaps enviously) as solely the result of the seemingly bottomless wealth of the team’s Gulf ownership, which has poured billions into the squad. But lots of teams have rich owners. Valencia has one. So does Newcastle United. So do the New York Jets. Ask fans of those teams how things are going.
The difference with Manchester City is not just that it has bought well — stars like Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Rúben Dias — and bought in bulk. It is that it has bought with a plan. “Petrol and ideas,” Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, once said of how City was transformed from also-ran to champion. “Money and quality.” Now it just needs to clear the final hurdle, the one that has driven its entire mission. And preferably before its Qatar-backed rival, Paris St.-Germain, beats it to the prize.
Chelsea, too, has been built for days like this. Champions of England five times under its say-little, spend-a-lot Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, the Blues finished fourth in the Premier League this season. It has lost only five games under the German coach it hired in January, Thomas Tuchel, and it has beaten Manchester City twice since mid-April.
Chelsea, too, has bought well. It took advantage of the pandemic’s uncertainty last year to bring aboard $260 million worth of new players: $51 million to Ajax for the playmaker Hakim Ziyech; $68 million for the Germany striker Timo Werner; $63 million more for Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell. Thiago Silva, the vastly experienced Brazil defender, was coaxed away from other suitors, and amid all that Chelsea persuaded Bayer Leverkusen to part with the 21-year-old forward Kai Havertz for a fee that may rise as high as $90 million.
“The ambitions are as true now as they were when I first became owner,” said Abramovich. “I hope that can be seen through the work we have been doing on and off the pitch over the last 17 years.”
The squad his wealth has assembled that even the best of those buys have struggled to find a regular place in a squad so deep that its bench includes a World Cup-winning striker and a goalkeeper, when we signed three years ago, was the world’s most expensive goalkeeper.
But this time Chelsea also has a coach, Tuchel, who nearly won this competition last year, and who knows how to lead a deep and talented (and expensively constructed) roster in big moments.
In a battle of budgets, could he or his counterpart, Pep Guardiola, be the difference?
There is an American at today’s game. Two actually.
Christian Pulisic is expected to feature for Chelsea, though it will be from off the bench, the high-water mark in stages for the high-water mark in American players in Europe.
The other American, Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen, most likely will be a spectator in Porto unless there is an emergency or two in his team’s camp. Steffen’s consolation is that he has already become the first American to win the Premier League.
But for most fans in the United States, Pulisic will be the main talking point today. Even since he joined Chelsea from Germany’s Borussia Dortmund in 2019, for a $73 million fee that raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic, he has battled to find his place in London, and his team.
Chelsea and its fans have had little complaint about his play.
Just last month, he scored the goal that provided a valuable point on the road against Real Madrid in semifinals.
A week later he showed similar poise to set up a goal by Mason Mount that finished off Madrid.
But the ongoing competition for places in Chelsea’s star-studded attack is never easy; a year after bringing Pulisic into a team that already had Mason Mount, who plays a similar game, Chelsea bought the German forwards Timo Werner and Kai Havertz.
Injuries, too, have been a persistent issue for Pulisic, and that is perhaps part of the reason Chelsea Coach Thomas Tuchel has tended to see him as more of a second-half super sub than a 90-minute fixture in his team.
But did his performance against Real Madrid, and some other strong outings this spring, change that impression? No. He will start on the bench as usual, but said this week that he would be ready when called.
“I’ve learned a lot, I’ve come very far,” Pulisic said in an interview with CBS Sports this week. “There have been some real ups, also some times where I had some really difficult moments. I’m happy with my form now. I’m happy with the way I’m feeling. I’m confident.”
Many fans traveled to Porto on matchday for a variety of reasons and by morning they were passing through the city’s airport and looking for the fastest route to the city.
But getting into the country required one extra step this year: a coronavirus test.
Approved for entry, the late-arriving fans joined their countrymen in the city center. With hours to kill before the evening kickoff, thousands gravitated to the waterfront, where the sun was shining and the beer was flowing.
Security police, wary of the size of the crowds, kept a close watch. But among City fans flocking to their clubs first Champions League final, and Chelsea supporters thrilled to be back in the game, the mood was light.
Our colleague Tariq Panja met Nigel Holland, 63, and Paul Hart, 67, of Manchester. Each had followed City for more than a half century. “We’ve done the really dark days from the third division, so we’re enjoying this,” Holland said.
Others just couldn’t wait to get inside the Estádio do Dragão, and get on with it.
The president of European soccer’s governing body confirmed reporting by The Times this week that the organization was considering combining the Champions League semifinals and final into a weeklong soccer celebration instead of a single day.
“Personally, I would like to see it happen,” the president, Aleksander Ceferin, told the French sports daily L’Equipe ahead of Saturday’s final in Portugal. “It could be great. And effective in terms of revenue if it is well done.”
And while he expressed support for the idea, Ceferin also said there was still time to discuss it with clubs, partners and broadcasters.
“There is no urgency,” he said. “We can decide this in a year’s time.” The changes, The Times reported, could not take place until at least 2024.
Last summer’s Champions League knockout stages were a hastily arranged affair, thrown together with fingers crossed even before the pandemic had ebbed in Europe. Schedules were changed. A new host (Lisbon) was found. A bubble was created.
But something surprising happened: Everyone seemed to love it. Single-game quarterfinals and semifinals — instead of the usual home-and-away ties — were a high-stakes hit, adding drama and drawing viewers.
The changes proved so popular with Champions League organizers, in fact, that they are giving serious consideration to incorporating some of them permanently as part of a “champions week” concept in which two winner-take-all semifinals and the final will be played in one city, and supplemented by a schedule of concerts, games and other events.
The proposal would produce the focused drama of the final weekend of a tennis major or college basketball’s Final Four, and turn club soccer’s marquee game into something a bit more like the Super Bowl.
“The sponsors will love it,” said Tim Crow, a consultant who has advised several major companies involved in events like the World Cup and the Olympics. “The Super Bowl model is like that, when it’s not about the game, it’s about the week.”