Cagey encounter likely
An all-English Champions League final is something to treasure. Until kick-off at least.
Because once the hype and the talking is over what is typically served up are two Premier League sides stripped of the intensity and swagger they display domestically, beaten down to basics by the enormity of the occasion.
This we saw in 2008 when Chelsea and Manchester United played out a fairly boring draw to penalties in the Moscow rain. Eleven years later, an early goal by Liverpool should have sparked their clash with Spurs into life but absolutely did not.
Will this Saturday evening at the Estadio do Dragao be any different? Sadly, all signs point to the contrary with Chelsea and Manchester City so fearful of the other’s strengths that a cagey encounter can be anticipated. As nerves take hold and each team looks to nullify the other, swagger will be in short supply.
Still, so momentous is this game that we will be gripped regardless. For Manchester City this is their most important 90 minutes since their transformative takeover 13 years ago while victory for Chelsea would conclude a remarkable change in narrative that until Thomas Tuchel’s arrival had them down as a club in transition.
The German will be seeking revenge for last season’s loss to Bayern as boss of PSG or else be damned as a two-time loser on the biggest stage. As for Pep Guardiola, this is the summation of five years of largely fantastical football and a project that always had the lifting of the big-eared trophy as its ultimate aim. This is everything.
So, we will tune in and all be enraptured by the drama and the meaning. Just don’t expect an abundance of chances or more than a couple of goals.
Back to slack
That’s enough of the negatives. Here’s a real plus.
For prolonged tracts of this season both City and Chelsea have been so formidable at the back that numerous articles have been written in tribute to their lockdowns during lockdown. Not for nothing was Ruben Dias handed the FWA Player of the Year over Gundogan and De Bruyne. Not for nothing were Tuchel’s side compared to Mourinho’s Chelsea of the mid-2000s just a few months into the job.
That is no longer the case though. In recent weeks both defences have become decidedly mortal.
During Tuchel’s opening three-and-a-half months at the helm Chelsea kept clean sheets a staggering 72% of the time. Just 11 goals were conceded in 25 games.
In their last four fixtures however, they’ve been breached on five occasions, contributing to three defeats.
City meanwhile won the title courtesy of an impenetrable rearguard. Across a 28-game period from Christmas to early April, the champions-elect conceded just 13 goals, equating to a goal every 193 minutes.
In their last 12 contests that ratio has tumbled to 77 minutes with Newcastle and Brighton – neither exactly known for their prolificacy – recently helping themselves to three apiece inside a week.
Granted, there are extenuating circumstances for City with the league wrapped up early but even so, a scant number of opportunities may well be added to by individual mishap.
Who emerges a hero?
Should these previously imperious defences show any degree of frailty it is City who are most likely to take advantage.
As impressive as Chelsea have been under Tuchel a ratio of just 1.3 goals per game reveals just how much they’ve relied on being hard to break down and indeed if every game during his era is split into equal groups we find their scoring return is actually diminishing. It is also relevant that the Blues have only scored more than two goals in a fixture on a single occasion.
By comparison, City’s strike-rate during Tuchel’s reign is 2.3 per game, exactly one goal per match more. They have scored more than twice nine times since the German’s appointment.
It is however credit to Chelsea that they share around the burden of scoring with nine different names on the score-sheet from their last ten and this has been a recurring theme all season. An astounding 24% of their league goals have been converted by defenders.
Yet before you back Antonio Rudiger at 50s to score first, consider the serious threat posed by Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden. Mahrez bagged four across the quarters and semis while the brilliant Foden has scored five in his last 10 appearances.
The 20-year-old superstar is 6/1 to break the deadlock while the best bet for Mahrez concerns his propensity to shoot from anywhere. The Algerian schemer is 9/4 to have one or more shots on target from outside the box as an odds boost.
From the past to destiny
Or perhaps it makes more sense to back the widely maligned Timo Werner in the goalscoring market? Certainly, the track record of past Champions League finals suggests so.
When compiling data for the FA Cup final earlier this month it was surprising to learn how few strikers have grabbed the headlines in the 21st century in that particular fixture. Isn’t it generally believed that forwards thrive on the biggest stages?
Well they do in this European showpiece event. In the last 20 finals 40% of the goals have been notched by out-and-out strikers and diverting from logic for just a moment wouldn’t it be apt if Werner ends a difficult season as a hero? How many times have we seen this occur? Enough times to fancy him here.
What is also pertinent when looking back through this fixture’s past is that seven of the last 20 finals have gone to extra-time and acknowledging the closeness in quality of these two teams and the likelihood of them cancelling each other out, don’t discount the possibility of that happening again this weekend.
Chelsea fans might also be interested to know that 60% of the goals from those previous finals were scored in the second half. Only two of Chelsea’s last 10 were fired home in the first 45 of games.
Factoring all this together presents a scenario for your consideration. That City score first via Foden or Mahrez. That Chelsea equalize in the second period. Then this era-defining match rolls into an extremely tense and nail-biting additional 30 minutes.
From there it is in the hands of the gods and destiny.
I’ve suggested BTTS and Under 2.5 Goals as pragmatic selections but, if they both land it’s 1-1 of course, so I wouldn’t put anyone off taking the 5/1 on offer in the Correct Score market.