UEFA Champions League Final Preview


George Economides

The stage is set for the Champions League Final, and for the first time in 2 years, it’s an all-English affair between Premier League champions Manchester City and Chelsea F.C. Manchester City, who look to complete their treble, after having already secured the League Cup and the Premier League Title. All whilst Chelsea looks to grab their first trophy of the season after a crushing loss to Leicester City in the FA Cup final.  

Despite being overwhelmingly successful during manager Pep Guardiola’s 5-year tenure, Man City has yet to get their hands on the elusive UCL title. In previous years, they have suffered heartbreaking upsets to the likes of  A.S. Monaco, Lyon and Tottenham Hotspur; Guardiola received backlash for his tactics in these past losses, providing him with extra incentive to silence the critics and get his gameplan right.  Luckily for Pep, there is something starkly different about this City team; they have traded their flashy attacking playstyle for a much more rigid defensive approach. This defensive revolution has been made possible by their brand new center-back, Ruben Dias. Dias has proven to be a rock in the back and has brought out the best of a defense that used to be very inconsistent. City looks very strong heading into the final, but they still have one more obstacle in their way to the trophy and that obstacle is fellow English club, Chelsea. 

Unlike City, Chelsea has had a much more rocky path to the Champions League Final. After scraping into UCL qualification last, Chelsea spent loads of money on high-profile signings. Yet Chelsea had an abysmal start to the season, as by January they sat midtable and sacked manager Frank Lampard. With the arrival of new German boss Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea has found their spark as they shot back into the top 4 and the Champions League final. Similar to City this season, Tuchel has also drastically changed Chelsea’s playstyle, as he’s transitioned them from an attack-minded team to a very pragmatic, counter-attacking side. This switch has been very beneficial for Chelsea, as their quality of play has dramatically improved since. One thing that will be interesting is to see how Tuchel will prepare this Chelsea team for the final. Last year Tuchel led French club PSG all the way to the Champions League Final, but his club fell apart in the final. It will be interesting to see if Tuchel can overcome last year’s defeat, or will his Chelsea team suffer the same fate?

Players to watch: 

Chelsea- Mason Mount

In the run-up to the final, Mount has been vital to Chelsea’s success, as he’s scored in both the quarter-finals and the semifinals. Mount has been the main creative force in Chelsea’s midfield this season, a fact that is evident on the stat sheet as he’s tallied a team-high 8 assists. Mount’s ability to create chances for his teammates around him could be vital to Chelsea in the final, and if Mount can win his midfield battles with Rodri and Fernandinho, Chelsea will surely win.

Man City: Raheem Sterling

In previous years, Raheem Sterling has had a tough time contributing and producing some end product to his team, especially in the clutch. But if Sterling can bring his A-game to the final and put away loads of chances City will create, then he could easily turn the tide of the match in favor of City with his rapid pace and improved decision-making.

Key to the game: The defense

In their runs to the UCL final, both teams have relied heavily on their defenses to provide them a solid base to build an attack off of. In the second leg of the semifinal against PSG, Man City faced 14 shots, yet they still kept a clean sheet. On the other hand, Chelsea was able to keep Spanish Champions, Atlético Madrid, goalless through two legs in the Round of 16. Both teams have shown a willingness to sit back and scrap it out for a result, so it’s just a matter of who blinks first. 

Predicted XIs: 

Man City: Ederson, Dias, Stones, Cancelo, Walker, Rodri, Fernandinho, Foden, De Bruyne, Sterling, Mahrez

Chelsea: Mendy, Rudiger, Christensen, Azpilicueta, Chilwell, James, Kante, Jorginho, Ziyech, Mount, Werner

Europa League Final Preview: 

Three days before the Champions League Final the slightly less glamorous Europa League Final kicks off as English giants Manchester United take on Spanish side Villarreal. 

After crashing out of their Champions League group in December, Manchester United have had a great increase in form under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Aside from a tight win against AC Milan in the round of 16, Man U have otherwise blown out the rest of the competition in the knockout stage, including a 6-2 thrashing of Roma in the semi-finals. It’s clear that Man United are the favorite in this matchup, but Villarreal may still have an ace up their sleeve. 

Unlike Manchester United, Villarreal secured Europa League qualification through their 5th place finish in La Liga last season. After manager Javier Calleja stepped down in July, Villarreal appointed Spanish coach Unai Emery following his dreadful term as Arsenal boss. Emery has been getting the very best out of this Villarreal team, leading his squad to a 19 match unbeaten streak at the beginning of the season. Emery has been a great fit for this talented Villarreal squad, but can he get them over the hill in the Europa League, something he did twice with fellow Spanish side, Sevilla. 

It will be very interesting to see how this final plays out, as Manchester United will look to play their all-out attacking brand of football, while Villarreal will look to frustrate United with their stringent defense and strong possession play. Will Villarreal’s defense hold strong against the Red Devils, or will Man U’s attack be too much for El Submarino Amarillo ( Yes, their nickname is actually the yellow submarine). If Villarreal could pull this upset off it would be a major milestone for the club, as they would secure their first major trophy in the club’s 98-year history. On the other hand, a second Europa League title would be at best a footnote to the long list of Man United’s trophies, but would also be a good step forward for Solskjær and his team of young stars. 

Player to Watch: 

Villarreal: Gerard Moreno

The 29-year-old striker has been crucial all season to Villarreal all season. Moreno has formed a strong strike partnership with Paco Alcacer, but Moreno stands out as his 29 goals leads the team and is top-10 in Europe for most goals scored, only behind the likes of Messi and Ronaldo. Moreno has provided during some of Villarreal’s most important matches, including a  brace in the quarter-final against Dynamo Zagreb; Villarreal will definitely need his help if they have any chance of beating Manchester United in the final. 

Manchester United: Victor Lindelof

Although it’s easy to put either Bruno Fernandes or Marcus Rashford here, both of whom have scored plenty of goals for United this season, I think center-back Victor Lindelof will be more important to Man U’s success in the final. Since center-back Harry Maguire got injured in early May, Man U’s defense has looked extremely leaky. That has resulted in back-to-back losses to Leicester and fierce rivals Liverpool in the EPL. With that in mind, it will be the responsibility of Victor Lindelof to hold down the defense and keep the likes of Gerard Moreno away from the goal.

Key to the Game: Villarreal’s Defense

Throughout this season Villarreal’s Defense has been very solid with Raul Albiol and Pau Torres forming a stout center-back pairing that has made it hard for any attack. But on the other hand, Man United have boasted one of the best attacks in all Europe. Their 73 goals scored was 2nd best in the Premier League only falling short of champions, Manchester City. Villarreal will need to keep players like Rashford and Fernandes at bay if they have any shot of winning this match. 

Predicted Starting XIs: 

Manchester United: Henderson, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Bailly, Shaw, Mctominay, Fred, Fernandes, Pogba, Cavani, Rashford

Villarreal: Asenjo, Gaspar, Albiol, Torres, Pedraza, Gómez, Parejo, Capoue, Trigueros, Alcácer, Moreno