‘I am pretty sure we will have to suffer to win the final. Most of the time in finals, you have to suffer. You have to adjust to the bad moments, but you have to be yourself.’
"If you attack and are daring you to have more chances of winning. We have not been cowards, never in the match. There's nothing more dangerous than not taking risks. We have worked many, many hours this season and this is our payment."
Both the above quotes were said by Pep Guardiola. Creator of some of the greatest extravagant, elegant and expansive football playing teams in the past and the man behind that particular Barcelona team that will go down in footballing lore. The same man who created a Manchester City team that has decimated records - in England, a Bayern Munich side - that won three consecutive league titles and that Barcelona side.
It deserves a second mention because of how good they were and not just because they were effectively the base of a Spanish side that won three consecutive international trophies. And not just because of the fact that they won everything they could have possibly won as a team but because of the way they did and especially in the second final, aka the 2010/11 Champions League final. Their open, expansive, exquisitely crafted moves simply put that Manchester United team to the sword and left with few chances.
In doing that, they broke through the norm, the so-called rule that had been in place for many a year that insisted on the fact that Champions League finals and finals, in general, were supposed to be boring. But that, as many really don’t seem to realise, is the outlier to every final alongside that absolutely insane “Miracle in Istanbul” game as well. For Liverpool to do that, in a final no less against one of the great AC Milan sides was incredible and downright unheard of.
It’s why you’ll never see something like that again for many a year and it’s why we may never see another Leicester City side winning the title. LOSC Lille doing it in France comes about as close as we can to that and it’s exactly the same thing. But that’s another story for another time because what that Barcelona side did to Manchester United, in 2011 final, and what Liverpool produced was otherworldly but it’s not the way a final will ever be played.
Would it be a 10000% better if they were played like that? Most definitely but it’s probably why Pep Guardiola has struggled to reach a Champions League final since leaving Barcelona. Partly because he overcomplicates things but mostly because he is forced to overcomplicate things in order to help re-create what many have called the Messi effect. Now that Barcelona team is one of the greatest, but remove Lionel Messi from it and you’ve got something else altogether.
A problem. Open and expansive football isn’t supposed to thrive in a final, it really isn’t because of the amount of pressure, the way everything is and the sheer incredulity of it all hits everyone. It’s why most finals are the most boring games ever and they’re never changing because in the end, the cliché stands, “everybody wants to win a final but nobody wants to lose one”. It’s why people and managers like Jose Mourinho, Unai Emery, Roberto Di Matteo and even Carlo Ancelotti have won and thrived in them for years.
Move beyond the Champions League and the Europa League but the norm still applies because, beyond that outlier in that particular Spain team, no other final has been good to watch. The Euro 2016 wasn’t a bad one but while Portugal did lift it, they did it in incredible circumstances. The same goes for the 2010 World Cup, 2014 one, both the 2015 and then 2016 Copa Americas and so many others. Because when there is so much at stake, when they are quite literally a tangible piece of history available, something that could end up defining your legacy, your time on this planet and more importantly, for footballers in the modern age, their careers, it matters.
Finals are where the extravagant, elegant and expansive football comes to die unless you’ve got some otherworldly character in your team because then pragmatism seeps in. Go back to the quotes at the start of this article and re-read them. They’re not about being pragmatic or playing Mourinho-ball but about suffering in order to win a final and suffering by selling their soul a little. That’s something Guardiola had to do and did do because the second quote is after 2009 final where Barcelona played Manchester United.
Before Messi was Messi back when all Barcelona had was Samuel Eto, Thierry Henry, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, a pretty good but not yet god-like Messi and a host of others. There is a reason why some of the best games of any tournament are rarely the final but usually takes place in the quarter-finals, the round of 16 and sometimes in the semi-finals. Because they’re worth something and yet nothing at the same time which helps teams play to the best of their ability and then arrives the final.
Because unless you’re Real Madrid or that Barcelona team or Manchester United from the yesteryears or AC Milan or Spain, then finals doesn’t come around all that often. A Champions League final doesn’t come around all that often and as Mauricio Pochettino said, “I spent 10 days in my home and didn’t want to go out. Yes, it was tough because you nearly touched the glory.” It's that "nearly touched the glory" bit that gets everyone in the end.
That alone tells you how much it hurts, just how gut-wrenching it can be and the only way to get through it is perspective but that comes with time and time isn’t a good thing in this case. Because finals don’t come around that often. Just ask Arsenal or Chelsea, or AC Milan and now this Manchester United team. Or hell, anyone who once thrived at the biggest stages and now can’t even get close to a do-over. Ask Leicester City why they played the way they did against Chelsea in an FA Cup final.
Because the losses plagued their minds, the fact that they were the only side to play in four FA Cup finals and never win even one plagued their minds. It affected the way Brendan Rodgers’ set up his team, it affected the way the fans felt when Youri Tielemans caressed that ball into the net. Because when it comes to finals, in general, the team with the best players more often than not doesn’t win.
It’s the best team and to be the best team, sometimes you need to sell your soul and to sell your soul, sometimes it means going against everything you stand for and playing Mourinho-ball. Does that mean we’ll probably get another boring, tactically advanced between two of the most tactically ingenious managers in the world in another all-English final?
The chances are very high.
Because remember this, for Thomas Tuchel, this is his second chance to win a Champions League final. For Pep Guardiola, it represents something so much more than that and that quintuples in size for Manchester City. This is the culmination of more than a decade and a half of work, the goal that for centuries this club has been trying to reach because this is their holy grail and by god, they've finally managed it make it there with their Spanish maestro paving the way.
And then for Chelsea. In a season where they overachieved and underachieved in a wide variety of ways, something Thomas Tuchel and his band of misfits have lead Chelsea to a Champions League final. Their third Champions League final and they need this one to go their way. And then there's that big trophy. That gleaming, shiny, silver thing is just far too good looking to walk past as a runner-up. Everybody wants to win the final man, but absolutely no one, at least in their right minds, wants to lose one.