It was also the story of this 66th Champions League final, as the London club won their second and Thomas Tuchel their first with this resolute 1-0 victory. The wait for City’s first and Pep Guardiola’s third continues because the manager has once again overthought the biggest stage of them all. He succeeds once again in reducing his team’s chances of victory. The starting XI was the start of everything that went wrong, until the sad injury of Kevin De Bruyne. Prior to that, however, Guardiola’s unnecessarily complex system had been undone by Tuchel’s more direct approach and a simple – but sensational – Mason Mount ball. There is almost an element of Greek tragedy for Guardiola now, as one of Chelsea’s German signings won the game.
So many excessive instructions seemed all the more unnecessary as the brilliant Kai Havertz had just slipped the ball into an open goal. He had passed through exactly the area where City would typically have had a patrolling defensive midfielder. Guardiola had left remarkably without one, in what seemed like an unnecessarily convoluted approach.
You might call it confusing, except it’s now as much a part of Guardiola’s Champions League tradition as the 2011 performance with Barcelona.
He still hasn’t won one since, and given that Abu Dhabi has finally structured this political project specifically for the Catalan, there is an inevitable feeling that he is late. Instead, he was beaten by a Chelsea side who Tuchel says are way ahead of schedule.
They may not be as developed as City for the long course of a league season, but the difference here was that they understood their approach better. It was so much easier to grasp. You could see precisely what Tuchel wanted to do. It was brilliant management on the part of the German after only a few months in this position, and brought out a good and timeless defense of his players – time for the resolution and challenge that only happens in games like this one, because the height of the stage raises the level. Chelsea’s appointment was justified by the ultimate victory.
You can’t say anything about Guardiola’s approach. It seemed like a lot of players didn’t know what they were supposed to do either.
Very early in the game, Sterling turned to Oleksandr Zinchenko and spoke to him a bit – obviously about his position. One of the few issues for City at this point, however, was that Zinchenko looked like he had to play in around four different positions. More than anything, however, it felt like the young full-back had to step in as a defensive midfielder in the absence of a good start.
While there have been flashes of how it works – like when De Bruyne and Phil Foden almost walked in – there have been more cases where players just weren’t in the right place at a key moment.
This was very clearly the case with Havertz’s goal, but Chelsea had gained the upper hand so easily long before. Timo Werner should have opened the scoring with this ridiculously fresh-looking finish, but one of the hallmarks of the German’s season has been how he continues despite so many setbacks, how he continues to run. It was a key factor in the goal.
It was Werner’s run that took Ruben Dias out of his position, creating one of the many surprisingly wide gaps that Chelsea have just exploited. Most important was exactly where a defensive midfielder was supposed to be – or maybe Zinchenko, or the player Guardiola had asked to be placed. Either way, it was as confusing as it was inexplicable. It was also expensive.
Mount still had to choose a pass, and what pass it was. The weight was just perfect. A thrilling, raking ball allowed Havertz to clear the goal, the way Chelsea had threatened the entire game. Ederson handled it as the German rounded him from outside the box, but Havertz made the best possible advantage by putting him in the net.
It was his first Champions League goal. What time to get it.
Havertz didn’t just settle the game. He ran it often. It was his fine work that gave Christian Pulisic the chance that really should have sealed the victory. As it stood, Chelsea needed to fight more.
Havertz had been one of Chelsea’s many players – with the matchless N’Golo Kante, Antonio Rudiger, Reece James and Cesar Azpilicueta – also showing real ferocity.
There was that confidence with every challenge, that focus in a way only a device like this can bring out. City may have felt it went above and beyond a few times, especially for the second key moment of the game. Rudiger was only booked for a charge on De Bruyne, which forced the playmaker with a swollen cheekbone.
Soon there were tears flowing. It was desperately cruel for such a gifted player, who had been so determined to take control of this stage.
The reality, however, was that he hadn’t been at his best before even that. The game exceeded him a little. The city needed structure. They needed something, anything. Guardiola ultimately threw on Sergio Aguero. There was no last big goal, no final farewell. There was only this final victory for Chelsea.
Tuchel becomes the second coach to win it after losing the final the previous year to Jurgen Klopp. Then, in an empty and therefore soulless Stadium of Light, a Paris Saint-Germain state project lost. The other got beaten up here because Abu Dhabi still doesn’t have the silverware it most wants, that establishment’s credibility.
Football’s biggest trophy goes to an oligarch’s wildlife project instead, for the second time. The city is wondering what went wrong. Chelsea remain only joy.