By Rory Smith
PORTO, Portugal — Manchester City’s players did not seem to want to leave. Not right away, at least. They stood, as if frozen in place, as Chelsea’s players heaved the prize City craves more than any other into the air. They could not go. To go, after all, would be to accept that it was real, that it was over.
They had found themselves on the far side of the field at the Estádio do Dragão, silver medals draped around their necks. To get to the mournful safety of the locker room, they would have to walk past the seats that had, only a few minutes earlier, contained the massed ranks of their fans, hoping and willing that City might find a goal, that it might find salvation, that it might win a Champions League final it would go on to lose to Chelsea, 1-0. The seats were all but empty now. The fans had not stuck around to watch, to wallow.
Slowly, the players mustered their last vestiges of energy and began their long, sorrowful march. Several were on the verge of tears. Several more were long past the verge. Others seemed glazed, scarcely able to move, as if they were buffering, trying to process what had happened, what this meant.
It was just as they started to move that the fireworks went off, crackling and glittering and thudding into the sky. Soon, City’s whole team and its staff members were obscured, swallowed whole by a great cloud of cordite by fireworks that were supposed — were expected — to be for them. That is the thing about soccer, about sports. Sometimes, things do not turn out like they should.
In a lot of ways, Chelsea and Manchester City are two sides of the same coin. They are the vanguard of the money that has swept into soccer over the last 20 years, brought by hedge funds and vulture capitalists and oligarchs and nation states. They are, depending on one’s perspective, either the great insurgents or the nouveaux riches.
But they are, at the same time, fundamentally different. The Chelsea of Roman Abramovich has always embraced chaos. It has now won the Champions League twice, both times in seasons in which it changed its manager at the slightest hint of disappointment, in seasons when its ultimate triumph made little sense.
The Chelsea that was champion of Europe in 2012 was managed by Roberto Di Matteo, who won the trophy without his captain and with a debutante left back. The Chelsea that repeated the trick in 2021 has a squad that is both vastly expensive and curiously incomplete. Its leading goal-scorer, domestically, is a defensive midfielder who only shoots, really, when he takes penalties. Its main striker does not score goals. He does not, at times, look like he knows how.
Manchester City, by contrast, is a monument to control. In the 13 years since it was taken over by a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, it has sought to perfect every single aspect of being a soccer team. It has worked under the assumption that success is, effectively, a formula: that if all of the variables are regulated, winning is inevitable.
And so City is the benchmark: it has the best youth academy, the best training facilities, it has a playing style that unifies the club from bottom to top. It has the most data and the biggest scouting network, it has the deepest squad and the greatest manager and the most sophisticated commercial operation and the largest network of sister clubs.
None of it has come cheap. Quite how much all of it has cost is not possible to put a precise figure on, but it has cost not far off a couple of billion dollars, at the very least, to transform a soccer team that was a byword for disappointment into a gleaming advertisement for the modernity and mastery of its backers.
It has worked. Under Pep Guardiola, City has risen to become the dominant force in English soccer. For three of the past five years, it has probably — by most metrics — been the best team in Europe, whatever that means, really: the most complete and the most consistent, the one with the highest ceiling.
It is a constancy that has always evaded Chelsea, always too turbulent, too impatient, too comfortable with change. And it has been achieved by translating the control that defines the club into its playing style. Guardiola wants not just to have possession of the ball, but to have ownership of space itself: to dictate where passes go and where players do.
All of it, each meticulously-selected piece of the puzzle, had been done with this moment in mind. The Champions League represents the ultimate fulfillment not just of Guardiola’s vision, but City’s. It is justification for all of that investment, vindication for all of those ideas, and it is reward for doing all of those things right.
There is just one flaw. Success is not a formula. Not this sort of success, anyway, the success that relies on an alignment of the stars and the rub of the green and the minutiae of countless little moments. That is the undeniable, untameable nature of sport: that, in the end, there is always something that you cannot account for, something that you cannot control. That, sometimes, things do not turn out the way they should.
And so, in the game that represented that manifestation of its destiny, Manchester City sought to exert a supreme, almost obsessive, control, and found only chaos. Guardiola named a team full of attacking midfielders — one at left back, three in midfield, two more upfront — with the aim of starving Chelsea of first the ball and then hope. In the event, it was City who seemed frantic, uncertain, whizzing and whirling round the field at breakneck speed to try to slow down the game.
It lost because Chelsea was the precise opposite. It is only six months since Thomas Tuchel, its coach, was fired by Paris St.-Germain, unable to recover from losing the Champions League final last season. He was tasked not only with replacing Frank Lampard, a beloved club legend who many fans thought deserved more time to prove his worth, but with shaping some sort of identifiable team from the morass of gifted, but drifting, players he inherited.
He was told to fashion order from chaos, and this was his ultimate, his irrevocable proof. City barely laid a glove on Chelsea. It found its every path blocked, its every idea pre-empted, its every thought read. As Guardiola’s team grew more frenzied, Chelsea held its fire, bided its time, and waited for the moment to strike.
Its chance came just before halftime. For all those midfielders in Guardiola’s lineup, not one of them was in the vicinity of Mason Mount as he picked the ball up in his own half. Timo Werner, the nonscoring striker, darted into a channel, dragging City’s central defenders from their positions. Kai Havertz sprinted into the gap. Mount found him, and he bore down on goal, unencumbered, unaccompanied.
That was enough. That was all Tuchel’s team needed. It would be Chelsea’s players, at the end, running around the field, running to their fans, running on fumes and on adrenaline, running nowhere in particular, running because joy that pure, that uncut, the joy of a dream realized, is beautiful chaos.
And it would be City’s on that long march past those empty seats, through that cordite cloud stinging eyes already raw with tears, slowly coming to terms with the fact that — for now, at least — it is real, and it is over. This is the game they were gathered to win, the trophy that is the club’s ultimate purpose. This was their moment. But that is sports. Success is not a formula. Sometimes, things do not turn out as they should, as you expect. Sometimes, there is just a little bit of chaos.
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