Another Thomas Tuchel victory over Pep Guardiola raises more questions ahead of Champions League final

The middle meeting of three between the sides was a curious affair, but perhaps the least telling of all

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Saturday 08 May 2021 20:36

It didn’t close out the Premier League title, in the end, but this game did open some big questions about the biggest title of all.

They are also questions that go much deeper than the intricacies of these obsessive manager’s tactics or form of the players.

Pointedly, when it comes to the Champions League final, which team did it better serve for Chelsea to win this?

It genuinely could go either way, all the more so because the meetings between Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel have so far only gone one way.

The German has now won their two matches against each other while both have been Premier League managers, and in quick succession. Is it really possible to win three in a row, when the differences between the teams are so small, and it is close to 50-50?

That goes beyond dynamics like the simplistic idea that Manchester City are “due” one or the law of averages.

On one side, admittedly, Chelsea will go into this final - wherever it is played - with extreme confidence. They know they have the beating of the side considered the best in the world. They’ve now done it to them twice, and with real conviction both times.

Sure, City and Raheem Sterling will obviously point to that late penalty call, but Chelsea were very good value for the victory. They were the better team for the second half.

There’s not just the effect that could have on Chelsea’s mindset. There’s also the effect it has on City’s, and particularly someone who can be as neurotic about football as Guardiola.

There is the danger that the Catalan’s side develop a complex about Chelsea, and it increases the pressure on them for the final.

It may even prompt Guardiola to do something unnecessarily experimental in terms of tactics, in the way he has before in Champions League games.

On the other hand, it is possible that City develop a greater determination about setting it this right, while Chelsea fall into a slight subconscious complacency. Even a sliver of edge either way in games of this magnitude can be hugely decisive.

Guardiola himself spoke about this, when discussing one of the last great series he was in - when Real Madrid and Barcelona met in four games across three different competitions in the 2010-11 season.

"When you play as many times against each other, it becomes like the basketball play-offs,” the Catalan said. “You do one thing; they respond with another, you answer in another way.”

Those games certainly didn’t go one way.

The two sides drew the first in the league, which was predictably something of a phoney war given Barca all but had the title secured, before Madrid won the final of the Copa del Rey.

Whatever the influence either way, the consequence was that Guardiola’s side built up to their best performance, which happened in the game that mattered most - the Champions League semi-final. Barca effectively secured passage to the final with a 2-0 win away to Madrid in the first leg.

In that, this game perhaps most resembled the Spanish league game - and not just because it was in the English domestic competition with the title a guarantee.

It was just that bit flatter.

Despite all of its own stakes, and own importance, it was never going to be a real “dress rehearsal” for the Champions League final.

There was never going to be the same routines, or even the same actors.

Guardiola and Tuchel are, after all, the two managers more obsessed with minute detail and forensic preparation than any other in the game.

Given the prospect of winning the greatest prize in club football, there was simply no chance of either coach giving absolutely anything away from their potential gameplan, or their thinking. They were always going to keep their powder dry here, in the hope of unleashing something really surprising and genuinely effective when it matters most.

That is why most of the dramatis personae were players who are more likely to be substitutes in the final, amid nine changes for the champions elect.

Sterling scored the goal, and went down for the late call. He was also lucky not to be sent off, after a wild challenge on Timo Werner.

Such erratic play was some way off the effectiveness we saw for most of the last four years, which is why he is almost certain to be on the bench for the final. Joining him - barring injuries or a surprising decision - will be Sergio Aguero. He had the chance to clinch another title for City, bookending his career at the club in the most fitting away after his climactic first season in 2011-12, but chipped his penalty meekly into Edouard Mendy’s hands.

Maybe that was reflective of the contest.

Even the pressure on Chelsea to secure the top four was lessened after Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur lost in the previous 24 hours. They have instead gone third, thanks to two players who are now pushing to make the manager put them in - Hakim Ziyech and Marcos Alonso.

What might have summed it up, though, was that N’Golo Kante went off after an hour. That simply wouldn’t happen in a game of true pressure.

It is still too far to say it will have no bearing on the Champions League final, as Tuchel did.

That was no doubt calculated in itself, precisely because of questions like this one. There were still just too many undercurrents to the game, as well too many overarching themes. There were also little pointers, like the amount of space Chelsea got on the right.

Tuchel said he didn’t like all this discussion before the game, and just wanted the whistle to be blown to get it started.

Both managers have even more to think about now, though, precisely because of how this game went.

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