The eyes of the entire football universe are now fixed on the third meeting between Manchester City and Chelsea since the start of April.
Exactly three weeks until Europe’s finest converge for the UEFA Champions League final, Thomas Tuchel got the better of friend and great rival Pep Guardiola once again.
In a dress rehearsal for the continental showpiece on May 29, Chelsea were able to delay City’s Premier League title coronation as they strengthened their top four place by moving third, six points above fifth-placed West Ham.
The 2-1 come-from-behind win for Chelsea has whet the appetite for fans and neutrals.
With all the offsides, Panenka, penalty controversy and late goal drama; it was a fascinating precursor to the main event.
Crucially, it might have given Chelsea the psychological edge over City heading into their first Champions League final.
Indeed, Chelsea’s win in the FA Cup semi-final was Tuchel’s first triumph over a man he cites as one of his biggest influences in football.
The former Borussia Dortmund gaffer denied City a shot at an historic quadruple at Wembley, and has now delayed their title celebrations by a couple of days.
Unlike the FA Cup semifinal, Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic were denied the opportunity to run in behind City and catch them on the counter.
The Citizens defended deeper and got more bodies around Chelsea’s fastest runners, but Tuchel’s success so far has been founded on his ability to adapt to different opposition.
At the Etihad, they found themselves in the unfamiliar position of chasing a game after falling behind to Raheem Sterling’s strike. Merely turning this game around will give Chelsea huge confidence for the rest of the campaign never mind their all-important meeting with City.
A madcap couple of minutes on the stroke of half-time dangled the game in City’s favour before swinging right back Chelsea’s way after halftime. With Kurt Zouma yet to replace Andreas Christensen who got injured in the move that led to City’s opener, Chelsea conceded a penalty straight after and Sergio Agüero’s weak Panenka effort was comfortably saved by Édouard Mendy.
The Champions-elect could have been 2-0 up going into the break but were left bewildered at missing a potential title-clinching kick.
A rousing halftime team talk from Tuchel changed the dynamics as Chelsea played higher up to force City on the backfoot, getting a deserved equalizer on the hour mark.
Both managers distanced suggestions that the game would impact the European final – given the vast changes to both teams. However, Tuchel was pleased with the self-belief it has given his squad.
“The group and the players do everything to force the luck on our side, and we caught the momentum to have another big win. It increases our self-confidence in a natural and healthy way” he said after the most recent victory against Manchester City
Chess moves and Mind-games
Guardiola has this season resisted the urge to overthink things in Europe, sticking with a trademark controlled, possession-based game, a high defensive line and energetic midfielders interchanging as the false nine.
However, he is now faced with the ultimate test against Tuchel at the end of the month. Will Pep stick or twist again?
Whatever tactical adjustments he makes to his strongest team would be certainly intriguing.
Tuchel, of course, is looking to win the trophy for the first time, after going so close with PSG last season. Guardiola, meanwhile, is poised to join Bob Paisley, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane as the only managers to win the European Cup three times.
Having now masterminded victories over Jürgen Klopp, Diego Simeone, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Zinedine Zidane, as well as Guardiola twice. Tuchel is more than fancying his chances.
The Chelsea players also would; City might be the domestic kings with five Premier League titles and virtually all the cups in the last 10 seasons, but the Blues have won all three European finals they have contested in that same timeframe.
The Stamford Bridge side and Tuchel might just be a match made in heaven, Pep and City’s Kryptonite.
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