PORTO, Portugal — As Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea celebrated, Pep Guardiola walked straight past the Champions League trophy without giving it a single glance, Manchester City were outplayed in a 1-0 Champions League final defeat and this was the closest Guardiola would get to touching the European Cup since he last won it 10 years ago.
He might as well have been a million miles away as, runners-up medal in hand, the City manager kept his head down. It was probably through a mixture of anger and exasperation, but there was also likely to be a heavy dose of regret, given how — not for the first time — he overthought his line-up and tactics, when simplicity would have been sensible.
“I did what I thought was the best decision (with my selection),” Guardiola said after the game, but this was further evidence that, coaching genius though he undoubtedly is, the two-time Champions League winner has a habit of picking the wrong time and the wrong place to experiment.
Instead, it was Tuchel who took the spoils, having kept his approach simple and stuck to tried and tested methods. In the stadium where Guardiola’s old rival Jose Mourinho built his first Champions League-winning team with FC Porto, Chelsea used a counter-attacking game, based on rapid breaks from defensive positions, to land a knockout blow on City for the third time in less than two months.
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Kai Havertz’s 42nd-minute goal, which came when Chelsea club-record £72 million ($102.2m) signing exploited a gaping hole in the City defence before rounding goalkeeper Ederson to score, was enough to send the European Cup to Stamford Bridge for the second time and leave City still waiting for their first triumph.
Champions of England for the third time in four seasons, City were strong favourites to win in Portugal — despite having suffered recent Premier League and FA Cup defeats against Chelsea — but a flaw resurfaced that has beset Guardiola ever since he was coach of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Co. at Barcelona: Win or bust.
Guardiola’s tactics were designed for City to score early, then allow their possession game to take control and pass Chelsea into submission. But just as in past Champions League exits against Monaco, Liverpool and Lyon, there were too many changes, both in terms of personnel and approach, which left players uncertain what to do.
For only the second time this season, City played without a defensive midfielder; Fernandinho and Rodri were both named as substitutes, which meant Ilkay Gundogan, who has spent the majority of this season in an attacking midfield role, was chosen to fill the void in front of the back four and the former Borussia Dortmund player was simply overrun by Chelsea’s energetic attackers: Havertz, Mason Mount and Timo Werner.
With centre-forwards Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus also on the bench, Guardiola selected the out-of-form Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling. Bernardo’s selection was designed to give City an additional creative player to keep Chelsea penned in, but the Portuguese midfielder was anonymous before being substituted in the second half.
The lack of impact could be said of Sterling, whose selection on the left took Phil Foden away from the position in which he has been so effective in recent weeks. Sterling, too, did not complete the game.
Perhaps most damaging of all, though, was Guardiola’s decision to deploy Kevin De Bruyne as a false nine, which took City’s best player out of his favoured midfield role and left him looking confused as to where exactly he was supposed to play. A heavy collision with Antonio Rudiger on the hour forced De Bruyne off.
With just one shot on target, City were unrecognizable as Chelsea pressed, harried and disrupted. Even the loss to injury of Thiago Silva before half-time was no setback; every one of Tuchel’s players gave at least an 8/10 performance, with the immense N’Golo Kante dominating the game and deservedly winning the man-of-the-match award.
While Tuchel has won the Champions League within four months of replacing Frank Lampard at Stamford Bridge, the wait goes on for City and Guardiola, who was hired to be the difference-maker in this competition, but has become prone to tripping himself up at the wrong moment.
Maybe this just wasn’t mean to be City’s year. After all, they were initially banned from this season’s competition, and next, having been found guilty of breaking Financial Fair Play rules by UEFA. Having successfully overturned that penalty on appeal, winning the European Cup might have been too great a plot twist.
And they will be back. Having invested almost £2 billion on players since buying the club in 2008, City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, who did not attend this final, will continue to fund the team until, and after, they finally win the Champions League.
“It was the first time we were at this stage,” Guardiola said. “Hopefully we will be here again in the future.”
But as the beaten City boss walked past the trophy at the end of this game, Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous half-time speech during the 1999 final came to mind.
“At the end of this game, the European Cup will be only six feet away from you, and you’ll not even able to touch it if we lose,” Ferguson said. “And for many of you, that will be the closest you will ever get.”
Manchester United famously recovered from a goal down to beat Bayern Munich that night in Barcelona and claim a treble that, at one point this season, City looked to set to claim.
Instead, Tuchel and Chelsea tripped them up on multiple occasions, leaving the sense that, if Guardiola continues to allow his judgement to be clouded on the biggest stage, it might be one of his successors who finally enjoys the sensation of bringing the trophy back to the Etihad Stadium.