Football – Champions League Final – Manchester City v Chelsea – Estadio do Dragao, Porto, Portugal – May 29, 2021. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reacts. [REUTERS/Carl Recine]

It was billed as the night when Pep Guardiola would lead Manchester City to their first Champions League title but it ended with questions again being asked about the Spaniard’s decision-making in the biggest games in Europe.

Guardiola has created a team which has become the dominant force in English football, winning three of the last four Premier League titles with a wonderful style of play, but for the past two seasons they have been favourites to win the Champions League and stumbled when it mattered.

Last season the Spaniard departed from his settled approach for the quarter-final, single leg game in Lisbon against unfancied Olympique Lyonnais, switching to an unfamiliar three-man defence as City fell to a shock 3-1 defeat.

On Saturday, Guardiola shuffled his cards in an attempt to foil the tactics of Chelsea’s German manager Thomas Tuchel but in doing so left his side without the key elements that had taken them to their first Champions League final.

Either Brazilian Fernandinho or Spaniard Rodri have occupied the holding midfield role for the past two seasons and there was some debate over which one would start in the final.

Few if any observers expected that both would start on the bench with Ilkay Gundogan asked to drop back into a deeper role.

It was a move that simply did not work. Without the protection they normally enjoy, City’s defence was exposed early and often by Chelsea and if striker Timo Werner been sharper the point would have been made emphatically in the first half hour.

As if to highlight the absence of Fernandinho’s solidity, strength, ball-winning and ability to lead a transition, Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, the French World Cup winner, delivered an outstanding display of just those qualities.

The other switch that raised eyebrows was the recalling of out of form winger Raheem Sterling on the left, a move which meant that Phil Foden, who had been in a rich run of form in that position, was moved into a central role.

Sterling was not effective on the flank, looking unsurprisingly short of confidence, while Foden’s impact was reduced as he tried to find a role behind the ‘false nine’ – Kevin De Bruyne.

In fact De Bruyne, arguably the best central midfielder in the world, played almost as an orthodox centre-forward before he went off with a head injury on the hour, having had well below his normal level of impact on the game.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s Rodrigo and Benjamin Mendy react after losing the Champions League Final. [Pool via REUTERS/David Ramos]


Guardiola said his selections had been positive ones designed to win the game.

“I did the best selection I could. Against Lyon, like I did PSG (in the semi-finals) and like I did against Dortmund (in the quarter-finals). I picked the best selection to win the game and the players know it,” he said.

“I think Gundogan played good, but we missed a little bit to break the lines in the first half. The second half was much better.

“Gundogan played many years in this (holding) position, to be fast on the ball, to find the quality players with passes, between the lines and this is why I made this decision,” he said.

But Guardiola, who won the Champions League twice as manager of his first club Barcelona, is likely to face criticism for making unnecessary changes in approach and personnel.

“I think that will levelled at him because he changed the way he had played all season. He has always had Rodri or Fernandinho in there but he changed it,” said former England defender and television pundit Rio Ferdinand.

“We know tactically he tinkers, he might have seen a weakness in there, but Thomas Tuchel nullified any threat.

“We saw Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling played really wide, they’ve not really done that this season and maybe that is something City did wrong,” he added.

No-one doubts Guardiola is one of — if not the — greatest coaches in the modern game and possibly of all-time, but his expertise makes the manner of the defeats by Lyon last season and in Saturday’s final all the more puzzling. 

Chelsea celebrate with the trophy after winning the Champions League. [Pool via REUTERS/Carl Recine]


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