Eighteen years on from Liverpool’s miracle of Istanbul, treble-chasing Manchester City will strive to emulate their Merseyside counterparts’ feats in the same city when they butt heads with Inter Milan in the final of the 2022-23 Champions League on Saturday night.
The two continental behemoths clash for the first time in competitive action at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium on the back of differing domestic fortunes, as Pep Guardiola added another two English football trophies to his cabinet, while the Nerazzurri’s title charge in Serie A was fleeting at best.
The Premier League champions obliterated holders Real Madrid 5-1 over two legs in the semi-finals to punch their ticket to the showpiece event, while Inter earned the local bragging rights with a 3-0 aggregate triumph over fellow San Siro tenants AC Milan.
Adding yet another Premier League trophy and FA Cup crown to his distinguished CV in 2022-23, Guardiola’s list of domestic achievements at the Etihad is endless, but the coveted continental honour has consistently eluded him since he left the comfort of Camp Nou behind.
Up until the 2020-21 campaign, Guardiola had never taken Man City beyond the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier competition, and as fans slowly filtered back into the stadiums in the wake of untold COVID-19-related disruption, the perennial Premier League winners have come close, but no cigar.
Leaving the Estadio do Dragao with their tails tucked between their legs in 2021 thanks to Kai Havertz’s solitary strike for Chelsea, Man City fell victim to the Real Madrid juggernaut in the 2021-22 semi-finals, but revenge was a dish best served with a side of four unanswered goals during their reunion at the same stage this time around.
Following two moments of individual brilliance from Vinicius Junior and Kevin De Bruyne in a circumspect first leg, many were careful not to write Carlo Ancelotti’s charges off completely ahead of their reunion in Manchester,. After all, Los Blancos have proven the doubters wrong time and time again when European silverware is the prize.
However, the 53,000-strong crowd at the Etihad may have witnessed the passing of the continental torch, as Man City tore the reigning champions to shreds with goals from Bernardo Silva (2), Manuel Akanji and Julian Alvarez, making them the firm favourites to finally end their Champions League hoodoo in Turkey.
Since teaching their La Liga adversaries a footballing lesson, Man City successfully defended their Premier League title with 89 points to stave off the threat of Arsenal – whose challenge was a floundering one at best late on – before winning just their second FA Cup under Guardiola versus bitter rivals Manchester United.
Amid incessant speculation surrounding his future, Man City’s end-of-season specialist Ilkay Gundogan sparkled in the Wembley sunshine – netting a beautiful opener within just 12 seconds, the fastest goal ever scored in an FA Cup final – before letting fly with another volley in the second half to render Bruno Fernandes’s penalty inconsequential and put Man City on the brink of a terrific treble of trophies.
For all of their Etihad excellence this term, Man City’s triumph at Wembley marked just their third win from their last seven games away from their headquarters, with Guardiola’s side failing to win either of their last two European road matches against Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, but few Citizens supporters will be overly concerned with recent failures on Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford’s territory.
Scoring at least once in each of their last seven Champions League affairs, Man City could become the fourth team from England to lift the Champions League trophy aloft in the tournament’s current format. Only one other nation also boasts three previous victors in the competition, and they will be sending a crop of resilient representatives indeed.
Inter’s attempts to thwart Napoli’s Serie A title mission proved futile, but while the pre-match discussions may be centred on Man City’s bid for a domestic and continental treble, a similar haul of success is on the line for Simone Inzaghi’s knockout gurus.
Four months on from trouncing city rivals Milan 3-0 in the 2022-23 Supercoppa Italiana, Inter posted an identical triumph over their Rossoneri foes in the final four of the Champions League – albeit over 180 minutes rather than 90 this time around – to return to Europe’s grandest stage in some style.
Following a 2-0 first-leg success where they were billed as the ‘away’ team at San Siro, Inter extinguished any wafer-thin hopes of a Milan fightback through Lautaro Martinez’s second-half strike in the second leg on May 16, thereby advancing to a European final for the 11th time in their illustrious history.
Eight days later, Inter clinched a Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia double by putting Fiorentina to the sword 2-1 in the showpiece of the latter – the first of two final heartbreaks for the Viola, whose dreams of Europa Conference League glory ended in tears against West Ham United – and Inter will be out to avoid sharing the same fate as their Calcio counterparts when they step out for just their second Champions League final.
Two-time winners of the European Cup in its old format, Inter’s dry spell in the Champions League now stands at 13 seasons since serial continental champion Jose Mourinho – at least until this year – oversaw a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich in the 2010 final, where Argentina’s Diego Milito was the two-goal hero in Madrid.
The Argentine’s legacy is certainly being continued by one of his countrymen in Martinez, who alongside ex-Man City striker Edin Dzeko should form the two-man strikeforce hoping to fire the Nerazzurri to a seventh continental honour; the Italian powerhouses also have a trio of UEFA Cup coups from the 1990s to boast about.
Much has been made of Man City’s affinity for goal-laden showings, but Inter’s dogged defence has kept five clean sheets in six Champions League knockout matches in 2022-23 – the one aberration being their 3-3 quarter-final second-leg draw with Benfica – and only Arsenal’s beaten finalists in 2005-06 have recorded six knockout shut-outs before.
A springtime lull prevented Inter from staking their claim for another Scudetto, but the Nerazzurri board the plane to Istanbul having won 11 of their last 12 games across all competitions, while they have only failed to make the net ripple in one of their last 17 contests.
Inzaghi’s charges will walk out to the Champions League theme as just the fourth team to reach the final after losing their opening match of the tournament, after Milan in 1994-95, Bayern Munich in 1998-99 and Tottenham in the 2018-19 season. However, all three of those outfits ended up walking past the trophy en route to collecting their runners-up medals, and Inter will join that unwanted club unless they can discover the formula to prolong Man City’s European gloom.
The Man City medical team have largely been allowed to put their feet up ahead of Saturday’s final, although a minor concern for Kyle Walker was recently reported by Guardiola, who confessed that the right-back had been experiencing trouble with his back.
However, Walker himself has since alleviated concerns regarding his fitness, and the England international should form part of a fully-fit contingent for the Citizens, whose starting XI surely picks itself in Istanbul.
The same 10 outfield players that began the second-leg demolition of Real Madrid lined up to shake Prince William’s hand for the FA Cup final, and the only alteration should therefore come in goal, where Stefan Ortega will reluctantly hand the gloves back over to Ederson.
With no new contract agreed, Saturday’s game could very well be Gundogan’s Man City adieu, and the 32-year-old will don the armband for the Premier League champions 10 years after coming up short in the 2012-13 Champions League final with Borussia Dortmund against Bayern Munich.
Another goal for the indomitable Erling Braut Haaland would represent his 13th of the 2022-23 Champions League – hardly an unlucky number, as it would see him overtake Ruud van Nistelrooy for the most single-season Champions League goals for an English team – and despite failing to make the net ripple against Real Madrid, the Scandinavian sensation has never gone three successive games without a goal in Europe’s top tournament.
As for the Nerazzurri, Inter lost former Manchester United midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan to a thigh injury in the second leg of his side’s semi-final success over AC Milan, but the Armenian playmaker is reportedly winning his battle to be fit for the final.
The same can be said for Argentine attacker Joaquin Correa, who picked up a calf issue against Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia final, although a spot on the bench will await the 28-year-old if he is given the green light to make the journey.
Indeed, Inzaghi appears to have settled on Martinez and Dzeko as his established strike pairing for crunch matches – meaning that misfiring Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku will also aim to provide impetus from the bench before he bids farewell for a second time – while Mkhitaryan may force Marcelo Brozovic out of the XI if he can prove his fitness.
Left-wing back Federico Dimarco was not even in the squad to meet Torino on the final matchday in Serie A due to muscular fatigue, but the Italian is expected to line up from the off here, and his duel with Walker down the flank promises to be a riveting watch indeed.
In what could be their final appearances in a Nerazzurri shirt, centre-back duo Milan Skriniar and Stefan de Vrij – who were indispensable members of their 2020-21 Scudetto-winning team – are set to start on the bench, as Alessandro Bastoni, Matteo Darmian and Francesco Acerbi shield Andre Onana, who needs one more clean sheet to match Edouard Mendy’s record of nine from 2020-21.
Manchester City possible starting lineup:
Ederson; Walker, Dias, Akanji; Stones, Rodri; Silva, Gundogan, De Bruyne, Grealish; Haaland
Inter Milan possible starting lineup:
Onana; Darmian, Acerbi, Bastoni; Dumfries, Barella, Mkhitaryan, Calhanoglu, Dimarco; Martinez, Dzeko