A season marked by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the shockwaves of the failed attempt to create a breakaway Super League reaches its climax on Saturday, when Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea clash in an all-English Champions League final in Porto.
The finalists were among the group of 12 clubs that announced their breakaway project in April but were also among the first to withdraw in the face of fan anger — those supporters are now hoping to be celebrating European glory in Portugal this weekend.
It is the third final of Europe’s elite club competition to be played between two Premier League sides, and the second in just three seasons, such is the financial might of the modern English game.
And these are the two clubs whose own transformations in the last two decades under mega-rich foreign owners have done the most to change forever the landscape of the Premier League.
Chelsea and City have not met in a final since 1986 in the short-lived Full Members Cup, when the London club won 5-4 at Wembley.
That was before the Premier League and modern Champions League existed, before Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 and before the Abu Dhabi takeover of City in 2008. Between them they have now won seven of the last 10 Premier League titles.
Chelsea have the experience of this stage in Europe before, having beaten Bayern Munich on penalties in the 2012 final. They have also won the Europa League twice since then.
‘If you win you’re a hero’
City have never made it this far before but are finally here, after 13 years of enormous investment under Sheikh Mansour and four previous years of disappointment under Guardiola, the man who was hired principally to win them this competition.
“When you reach the final of the Champions League you finish part of the process that started five years ago,” said Guardiola on Friday.
After romping to the Premier League title, their third in four seasons, and having also won the League Cup, a City side starring the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Ruben Dias are the clear favourites at the Estadio do Dragao.
“We as players understand the magnitude of the game,” playmaker De Bruyne said on Friday. “If you win you’re a hero, if you lose you’re almost a failure.”
Chelsea have been transformed since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard as coach in January, even if they did finish the domestic season with three defeats in four games including the FA Cup final against Leicester City.
They have beaten City twice in the last six weeks, first in the Cup semi-final and then in Manchester in the league.
“They are maybe in the moment the strongest team in Europe and maybe the world. They have built a huge gap between them and us in the league but we closed the gap for 90 minutes at Wembley and away at City and this is what we want to do tomorrow,” Tuchel said on Friday.
Shadow of Covid-19
Covid-19 again casts its shadow over the final, which is being played in Porto following the last-minute decision to move it from Istanbul.
The Turkish metropolis was denied the chance to host the occasion for the second year running after the UK government put the country on its travel red list, preventing fans of either finalist from attending the game from England.
Just like last year when Lisbon was the last-minute solution, Portugal rode to the rescue again, with the country one of the few on the UK’s green travel list.
There can be few more charming host cities than Porto, with its cobbled streets tumbling down towards the waterfront which looks across to the Port wine warehouses on the other side of the Douro River.
English fans began gathering on Friday on cafe terraces under blazing blue skies. With Portuguese authorities allowing the Estadio do Dragao to be filled to 33 percent capacity, there will be 16,500 spectators in total in the ground, including 6,000 fans of each club.
Many more are expected in the city without tickets and there will be two fan zones, one for supporters of each side, including one under a giant inflatable Champions League trophy on the city’s main Avenida dos Aliados.
A negative coronavirus test is required to enter but fans are being permitted to consume alcohol before being bussed off to the match venue.