The final club game on the 2020-21 European calendar is a doozy, with Manchester City set to play the role of favorites in their first Champions League final.
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Standing in the way of the European Cup is Chelsea, led by a man who’s been there before and players with plenty of experience.
And while the myriad tactical plans from Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel and Man City wizard Pep Guardiola are borderline intoxicating to consider, what player-versus-player match-ups will go the longest way toward dictating whether City makes club history or Chelsea nabs its second European Cup?
Chelsea’s right wing versus Man City’s left back
It would be quite the story if Pep Guardiola’s failure to find a star left back is what kills his chances at a first European Cup outside of Barcelona, having twice beaten Manchester United in a UCL final with Sylvinho and Eric Abidal at the position.
But Guardiola’s choice of Oleksandr Zinchenko, Benjamin Mendy, or Joao Cancelo is unenviable in a not-too-great manner. Is it Zinchenko, a central midfielder for Ukraine now with plenty of left back experience for Man City in a sort of middle class David Alaba way? Or is it Mendy, a marauding, dangerous but often absent-minded and lackadaisical player as capable of the silly as the sublime?
Cancelo is wonderful, but will he hang with whoever Chelsea delivers out wide? With Christian Pulisic capable of playing right-side attacking midfield, Mason Mount the same, and either savvy Cesar Azpilicueta or spirited Reece James flying up the right, you like the idea of Chelsea having some success on that side.
So it may just be Pep pulling out something he’s rarely used but been tuning-up in training for a few weeks: Aymeric Laporte or even Nathan Ake at left back. Either way, it’s the biggest battle.
N’Golo Kante plus the trainer’s table versus Kevin De Bruyne
There is no better midfield disruptor in the world than a fit and firing N’Golo Kante but the French motor is a doubt for Saturday.
If he can play and is at 75 percent potential, City become a team even more reliant on possession for driving its attack given Kante’s sensational ability to break up play.
Since Thomas Tuchel was hired on Jan. 26, Chelsea has lost a grand total of three Premier League matches. Guess who’s missed all three?
Kevin De Bruyne is arguably — or perhaps inarguably — the best midfield playmaker in the world right now. Kante is the player best suited to put KDB down from 100 percent.
Will he go? Cause if not, it becomes much, much harder.
Pep Guardiola versus himself
Okay, yes, I know I said we’d only do player-versus-player but here we are at No. 3 and it just has to involve Pep Guardiola.
When the Catalan version of the galaxy brain meme runs Man City the way he’s painstakingly designed them, they almost always win and often it’s by quite a bit.
When he overthinks himself, Man City…. still almost always wins. And even though Raheem Sterling’s butchered late chance versus Lyon could’ve swung City’s last UCL exit door back open, it was some atypical tactics that slowed City’s start versus the Ligue 1 side.
Guardiola is a football genius. He averaged 2.36 points per game at Barcelona, then 2.40 at Bayern Munich, and now 2.36 at Man City. He is the architect of a machine, but Thomas Tuchel is the architect of the machine’s top impediment.
Will Guardiola trust his status and say, “Fine, Thomas. If that beats me, fine, but I’m going out on my own terms?” If so, Man City wins barring an individual error or profound work of opponent wonder.
City has been profoundly good in an attack-minded 4-3-3. If we see anything else, it’s either a long-planned stroke of genius or Guardiola risking something less than his best. Stay tuned.