Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea are in Porto as tension builds towards Saturday’s all-English Champions League final showdown in the Portuguese city which was named as a last-minute host for the match.
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, underlining the strength of the cash-rich 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.
Not so long ago, the idea of Chelsea and City meeting in the biggest club game of all would have been laughable. Their only previous encounter in a final came in 1986 in the short-lived Full Members Cup, when Chelsea 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.
The west London club had a head-start in terms of becoming big-spenders and as a club they have the experience of this stage in Europe before, having beaten Bayern Munich on penalties on their own turf in the 2012 final.
They have also won the Europa League twice since then.
– ‘If you win you’re a hero’ –
City, though, have never made it this far but are finally here, after 13 years of enormous investment from the Gulf and four previous years of disappointment under Guardiola, the man who was hired principally to win them the European Cup.
After romping to the Premier League title, their third in four years, and having also won the League Cup this season, a City side starring the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Ruben Dias are the clear favourites at the Estadio do Dragao as they target a treble.
“We as players understand the magnitude of the game tomorrow,” influential midfielder De Bruyne said in a press conference on Friday. “If you win you’re a hero, if you lose you’re almost a failure.
“Everyone understands the pressure but we should be enjoying this game. Take it as something where you want to perform and show your best.”
City know all about Chelsea’s threat. Chelsea have beaten City twice in the last six weeks, first in the FA Cup semi-finals and then at the Etihad Stadium in the league.
They 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 Cup final against Leicester City.
“They are maybe in the moment the strongest team in Europe and maybe in 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.
The German has declared midfielder N’Golo Kante and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy fit to play after knocks, while there was a scare for City on Friday as top scorer Ilkay Gundogan limped out of their last training session.
– Shadow of Covid –
Covid-19 again casts a shadow over the final, which is only being played in Porto after the last-minute decision to move the game 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, making it impossible for fans of either finalist to attend the game from England.
Just like last year when Lisbon was the last-minute solution, Portugal rode to the rescue again, and fans will be there with the country one of the few on the UK’s green travel list.
There can be few more charming final 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 were starting to gather on Friday on cafe terraces under blazing blue skies. With Portuguese authorities allowing the Estadio do Dragao to be filled to 33 per cent capacity, there will be 16,500 spectators in total on the ground, including 6,000 fans of each club.
Many more are expected to gather in the city without tickets.
Portuguese police have said dealing with such an influx of English fans is “an operation of great complexity”.