N’Golo Kante was everything. Of course, that’s his thing. The Frenchman frequently gets through the work of two players, but even by his own standards, Kante made this match his own. This was the Kante Champions League final, not just for his Chelsea performance, but also for the way his display contrasted with that of Manchester City’s.
The sight of Raheem Sterling in the City line-up made most of the headlines before kick-off, but it was the lack of a holding midfielder that had the biggest consequence for the Premier League champions. Despite at least one of Fernandinho or Rodri starting 59 out of 60 games for City this season, both started this match on the bench.
Considering Pep Guardiola’s track record for overthinking big Champions League games, eyebrows were raised before a ball had even been kicked in Porto. Some tried to see logic in the Catalan’s selection, arguing he was betting on City dominating the majority of possession against a deep-lying opponent. Fernandinho or Rodri wouldn’t have helped break down Chelsea.
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However, this overlooked the importance of both midfielders on the defensive side of the ball. Chelsea’s winning goal came from a situation where Manchester City’s defence was split in two by a pass played at the halfway line. Oleksandr Zinchenko pushed into midfield when City had the ball, but this left the Ukrainian with too much ground to cover when Chelsea were in transition. Kai Havertz made the most of this to latch on to Mason Mount’s through ball and finish.
When Chelsea faced a similar scenario, Kante was there to intervene. There was a moment just minutes into the second half which illustrated this perfectly, with the Frenchman prodding the ball away from Kevin de Bruyne as the Belgian dribbled to the edge of the box. Manchester City didn’t have a Kante.
At least not until Fernandinho’s introduction just after the hour mark, but by that time City were chasing their tails. Chelsea had a lead to protect and plenty of space to break into to relieve pressure. This was the match Tuchel and his coaching staff had almost certainly planned for.
Guardiola’s clouded decision-making hinted at his own insecurity at coming up against a manager who has now outmanoeuvred him in their last three meetings. Tuchel has a greater insight into Guardiola’s mind than anyone else in the Premier League. This bodes well for a Chelsea title challenge next season.
The period between Fernandinho’s entry and Sergio Aguero coming on (when Guardiola shifted to a 4-4-2 ) was the most comfortable Manchester City looked in the whole match. At this point, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden had space to run into, something they hadn’t had for the first 60 minutes. This added more evidence to the notion that Guardiola should have had more trust in his players to play their own game. City were too reactive to Chelsea’s threat.
Chelsea win the Champions League
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By trade, Fernandinho is a reactive player, but his greatest importance to City is in the way he provides a platform to more attack-minded teammates. This is what Kante did for Chelsea. Havertz played his best game in a Chelsea shirt and was afforded the freedom to do so by the work of his French teammate in the centre of the pitch.
Nobody made more ball recoveries (10) than Kante. The 30-year-old wasn’t dribbled past once and won all three of the tackles he made. Havertz, Mount and Reece James were all standout performers, but Kante was the biggest difference between the two teams on the night. Fernandinho could have played a similarly significant role for City had he not watched 60 minutes of the match from the bench.
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