About 25 minutes before kick-off here in northern Portugal, a young lad from Stockport ran out in advance of the biggest night of his life and proceeded to juggle a football across half the width of the field.
It had been Phil Foden’s birthday the day before. He had turned 21, a landmark age marked before dinner with a cake presented to him by his Manchester City team-mates.
There had not been much fuss and no wonder. This was to be a much bigger day, an occasion when a player described by his manager Pep Guardiola as ‘the most talented player I have ever seen’ was to showcase his precocious gifts on European football’s biggest stage.
Phil Foden (left) and Mason Mount both started the Champions League final on Saturday night
Here in Porto, this was to be a big night for English football, no matter what happened. Two Premier League clubs head-to-head and playing attacking, brave football. From the very first moment, it was a truly absorbing game. No cat and mouse, just the search for an advantage, a search for goals.
Running right through it was English talent. Foden, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Raheem Sterling for City. Reece James and Ben Chilwell for Chelsea and, of course, Mason Mount.
Mount, at 22, is older than Foden and has taken a different path to the summit of the game. Foden has stayed home and learned his craft through age group football and on the training ground under Guardiola.
For Mount it was character-forming loans at Vitesse Arnhem in Holland and Derby County in the Championship.
The outcome has been the same for both. Now on the verge of becoming men, both are fundamental to the way their teams play, both play with a freedom and an instinct that reflects not only the youthful confidence they carry but also a liberation encouraged in them by both managers.
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel already loves Mount in the same way his predecessor Frank Lampard did. Tuchel, only in charge since late January, admired Mount’s thirst for work and knowledge, his seemingly innate understandings of angles and space on a football field.
Early on here, the Chelsea player was to the fore as the London club tried to impose their football on the English champions.
A low cross from Mount should have led to the opening goal for Timo Werner in the 11th minute but the German miskicked. Three minutes later, Mount was involved twice as he intercepted a City pass in centre field and then, having galloped forward off the ball, was on hand to provide Werner with good service once again. This time Ederson, the City goalkeeper, saved low to his right.
Mount is not physically imposing but he is rangy. He covers ground easily and quickly and he had to do so in his own half before long, tracking back to tackle Kevin De Bruyne in the Chelsea area as City’s playmaker thought he had found space to shoot.
Foden is a different kind of runner, bow legged and ungainly at times. But the turn of pace over three yards that City’s staff had been waiting for has arrived and enables him to ease away from players in tight situations.
Despite the talent around him in Guardiola’s team, Foden has arguably been City’s most influential player at the back half of this season. He was superb in the quarter-final and semi-final victories over Borussia Dortmund and PSG that brought City to this final.
He may have scored just before the half hour only for Antonio Rudiger to tackle but soon after came Mount’s big moment. His pass through the heart of the City defence was weighted to the very last perfect ounce and when Kai Havartz rounded Ederson Chelsea were ahead.
City were in truth starting to labour a little under the constraints imposed by Guardiola’s adventurous formation. The absence of a holding player was beginning to hurt them as Chelsea were able to gather the possession they needed to create chances.
Mount’s pass for the goal had been typical of him. There was a huge whole in the middle of the City defence to aim at, for sure, but the weight of it meant that Havartz did not have to break stride and placed Ederson in to a dreadful quandary about whether to come or to stay. It was, as it turned out, a question to which there was no good answer.
City chased the game hard in the second half. Foden would perhaps have liked to exert more influence but as injuries and substitutions interrupted the rhythm of the game he began to exist on the periphery until a sharp run and pass gave Riyad Mahrez to cross dangerously from the right. Chelsea cleared.
For Mount the game had become about discipline. Chelsea’s shape was everything to them as they tried to repel City’s increasingly frantic forward thrusts.
But for both young English players, this night will always be remembered for a variety of different reasons.
Mount was taken off with 10 minutes remaining. He had been impressive. As City’s need became desperate Foden could simply not be sacrificed and that said everything.