Friday, June 9, 2023

Champions League Saturday Preview

Istanbul will be the site on Saturday for the Champions League final between Manchester City and Inter Milan. The Premier League champions will be seeking a historic Treble to become only the second club to capture the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in the same season. Rival Manchester Unted is the only club to have accomplished that feat.

A Champions League title would be a first for Manchester City and the first for Manager Pep Guardiola since a gentleman named Messi was on his roster at Barcelona. Guardiola’s seven years in Manchester have been marked by domestic dominance (five Premier League titles) but frustration and disappointment on the European stage. Two extra time goals by Real Madrid knocked Manchester City out in the Champions Legue semifinals last season. A year earlier was a gut-wrenching finals loss to fellow Premier League side Chelsea. Undeterred, Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership has continued to back Guardiola with an ever-increasing talent pool. Erling Haaland was the latest star added to Guardiola’s constellation of world class talents for this season and the Norwegian striker has responded with 52 goals in 52 total matches, setting a Premier League scoring record in the process.

Standing in the way Saturday will be an Inter Milan side which boasts some familiar faces. Striker Edin Dzeko scored 72 goals in five seasons for Manchester City before departing for the Italian league after the 2014/15 season. Fellow striker Romelu Lukaku is on loan from Chelsea. Inter Milan midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan and defender Matteo Darmian were once teammates of Lukaku’s at Manchester United. While the Premier League alumni may well factor in Saturday’s outcome, the Nerazzurri also feature two of the top players in Serie A in Argentine World Cup winner Lautaro Martinez and Italian international Nicollo Barella. Martinez scored 20 goals this season and is a fixture in Manager Simone Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 formation, joined up top by either Dzeko or Lukaku. The choice of his second starting striker will be a key decision for Inzaghi who has seen Lukaku overcome injury problems to shine in the late stages of the domestic campaign.

Inzaghi’s two striker approach could impact Manchester City’s approach to the match. Center back defender John Stones may have to forego his recent hybrid midfield role to attend to marking responsibilities. Barella’s midfield defending could also slow down the recent successes of Manchester City creators Keven De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan. The match could hinge on Haaland. The striker has been quiet in recent matches, tying up defenders and creating space for his talented teammates.

Saturday’s match could be tailormade for Haaland to ripple the nets again when the 22-year-old squares up against 35-year-old Inter center back Francesco Acerbi. Acerbi partners with center back Alessandro Bastoni who may regret making headlines this week by saying his squad should fear “murderers and bad people,” but not Haaland.

Inter survived a group of death early in the tournament, emerging from its group along with Bayern Munich while Barcelona bowed out. The road recently has been a bit easier as the Italians knocked out Benfica and hometown rival AC Milan. Manchester City has traveled the tougher road in the knockout stages, eliminating Bayern Munich before toppling defending champion Real Madrid in the semifinals.

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