UCL final: ‘Pep has better run-in but switching back on for final may be a problem for Manchester City’ – David James
The stage is set for an epic UEFA Champions League finale between the Premier League champions Manchester City and their English rivals Chelsea. Pep Guardiola’s side has dominated in domestic circuits – winning both Premier League and English Football League this season, and appear to be the favourites going into the contest. But Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea also reached the final of FA Cup, and have shown tremendous character – despite changing managerial guard in the middle of the season – to reach the final.
Ahead of the contest, former England goalkeeper David James speaks to Hindustan Times’ Karan Prashant Saxena to discuss who he believes has an edge going into the match. The former Liverpool and Manchester City footballer also speaks on whether the English league has become the most dominant one in Europe, and Pep Guardiola’s future with the club after the UCL final.
Q) It has been a few tough weeks for Chelsea — they lost the FA Cup final, had to depend on other team’s results to make it top four. City, on the other hand, have cruised through the Premier League title win. Do you see the pressure on Chelsea before the Champions League final?
David James: “I think the form is relative. In Manchester City’s case, the position in the league became so strong, that they can tinker with the line-up. Even to the point that when Manchester City played Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal, Pep tinkered with the line-up, ended up losing. You could argue that could be something that would influence the outcome of the final.
“When you come towards the end of the season – they have won the Premier League, and the League cup. They have had two trophies in the bag. They were playing Scott Carson in one of the games against Newcastle United. Essentially giving everyone a run-out because they had already won the trophies.
“I always see going into the final as one of the places where you can rest players, almost to the point of switching them off. So, switching back on for the final could become a problem. But I think Pep had the fortune of having enough time. He could literally give everyone a run out and bring them back in for preparation for the final. You can rest but keep people ticking over.
“With Chelsea, Thomas Tuchel had made some selection decisions that backfired, and in the end, put himself in a position where the last game of the season was crucial. The fact that he was competitive might actually be better for Chelsea. In the sense, that they have played competitively might actually be better for Chelsea in the sense they have played competitively in the lead-up to the final, so everybody is switched on. The fact that they lost would not be necessarily beneficial.
“I think Pep got’s an advantage. But I am trying to be a devil’s advocate here. I just think Pep has a better run-in, in regards to form. Losing the FA Cup final would have been a big negative for Chelsea, they were better than Leicester despite brilliant goalkeeping by Kasper Schmeichel.
“But at the same time, they have been pushing leading up to this final. Training is going to be crucial. Injuries will be a major issue. Losing games or playing games a week ago means nothing player involved — Edouard Mendy, Kepa Arrizabalaga, N’Golo Kante – are not fit for the last game of the season.”
Q) How do you see Tuchel has changed Chelsea — in terms of strategies and formations — as compared to what Chelsea was under Lampard?
David James: “Lot of the discourse around Tuchel around last month was how fantastic is his defence was, how much better than Frank Lampard he was, and I subscribed to all those views. Because you could see, for example, Mendy in goal not making many saves. The biggest save he has made in the Champions League was the one he made against Real Madrid, against Karim Benzema. It was a match-winning save. That save saw Chelsea go through the rest of the stages of the tournament. That’s the quality of the goalkeeper. But if you look at the other games, thinking of Porto, where they lost 1-0. They could afford to lose 1-0. But it was a fantastic overhead goal. But beyond that, I don’t think Mendy made a save the whole game.
“The Chelsea defence has been fantastic. But if you look at Frank Lampard when Mendy first came into the side, there was a spell, I think it was 10 games, they had conceded two goals. So they had already done that before Tuchel turned up. They were already capable of having robust defence, and Mendy did not need to make saves after saves to keep a clean sheet. So, I think what Tuchel has done is sort of tweak those little qualities that Frank had already got in there.
“I think Werner’s role has changed. What I see in Werner is a guy who is confident enough to go ahead. If he scores, he scores. If he doesn’t, he’s already involved in the build-up.
“The key player for Chelsea this season — and I think where Tuchel again has added another layer — is Kante. He is defence, attack, he is everything. I fondly call him ‘spell-check’. Because when Chelsea make a mistake, he corrects it. He is the guy who is most important for Chelsea. With the injury issues he has had over the past year, with Kante precautionary taken off. Off the injuries, he is the key player who needs to be fit.”
Q) How do you see the result, whether win or loss – would affect his future with the club?
David James: “There is another trophy after the Champions League final – and that is the World Cup championship. There are not many teams that win the World Cup Championship (laughs).
“The situation for Pep will be ongoing, I think. He’s got a project here. There is an achievement of winning the title. Winning the Champions League, he would want to defend that Champions League and ideally go on to win it for the 2nd time next year.
“I have to say from an Englishman’s perspective and Euros are coming, there is a Pep influence on the players. This has happened during the World Cups. Pep has been the manager of Barcelona when he won the Champions League – and at the same time, the Spanish side went on to win the World Cup with the largest contingent of Barcelona players than any other team.
“He did not win the Champions League with Bayern, granted. But that Bayern Munich side made the largest proportion of the triumphant German side. If you look at last World Cup, England finished at their 2nd best position – reached the semifinal – with a large contingent of Manchester City players.
“Now, if you look at the Champions League side they have, they have a number of English players in there, who arguable can start, but more importantly will be representing England in Euros 2020. Pep’s influence is bigger than any football club. From a selfish point of view, I want Pep to stay in Manchester City.
“I want him to sign more English players so that maybe we can take the World Cup in Qatar. The point is that his influence is that he improves players. So, he is in the perfect place at this moment, to continue this legacy rather than winning the trophy that I have done the job, I should go somewhere. He seems to be enjoying himself. When you got a happy Pep, you got a good team.”
Q) All England Champions League final for the 2nd time in three years — is England football becoming the dominant force across Europe now, over Italian and Spanish football?
David James: “I think if you generalise English football against Spanish, and Italian football, then, yes. But the question is easy to ask. When you think of teams like Bayern Munich – who rely heavily on guys like Robert Lewandowski. And rightly, so. He is probably the best player in Europe, with regards to the goal. He was missing in crucial games for Bayern Munich during the Champions League. Had he been fit in those games, we probably would have had a different outcome.
“Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting is not Lewandowski. And had Lewandowski had Choupo-Moting’s opportunities – say again PSG – then PSG would not be playing in the next leg of the competition. In the right around the way, yes, English football is more dominant.
“But the beauty of football is actually to create these scenarios. A little bit like Alisson’s headers. There are a number of events that will influence the outcome. Going forward, when you look at some of the other leagues. There is a rebuilding process.
“Not just one club – Real Madrid, Barcelona, and even Atletico Madrid. Even though they won the league, but it is probably more to do with the underperformance of other teams. But they deserved to win this.
“England have got a head start in a lot of other European competition. And maybe that influence will help us win the Euros.”
(Watch UEFA Champions League final, Manchester City vs Chelsea – LIVE on Sony Ten 2 in English & Ten 3 in Hindi channels from 12.00 am IST on 30th May 2021.)
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