Oh, Pep. Why Pep? Why do it to yourself? On a soft, balmy, thrillingly boisterous night in the suburbs of Porto, the defining tactical brain of the age sent out the strongest squad in Europe to face a team that had lost three of its last four games. And yet again, he blinked. Porto is a sleepy town, the only real disturbance in the past few days some gentle English infighting. But this was a case of a man very publicly mugging himself.
This City team has been irresistible for the last five months, has found a shape, a system, a set of rhythms that have carried them though the field without breaking stride. At which point, enter the black cloud. Hello doubt, my old friend. I’ve been expecting you.
Pep went full Pep here. When the City team dropped 10 minutes before 7pm there was a tremor of electricity around this vast, thrilling open bowl with its flying concrete roof, its cinematic sun strips. Chelsea would be fielding seven defensive players to City’s four. The starting midfield three would be Phil Foden, Ilkay Gündogan and Bernardo Silva.
On paper there was only one real change, with Raheem Sterling in and Fernandino or Rodri absent. But with that stroke Guardiola had removed an entire position, going into a Champions League final without a single defensive midfielder.
Guardiola didn’t just take the handbrake off here. He sheared it off with an angle-grinder, set about it with a mallet and hurled it out of the passenger window.
Even stranger, he did this against a team strong enough to defeat City twice recently. The deepest defensive midfielder was also City’s top goalscorer.
It looked muddled, a City team that was all ragu, no linguine. What about things like balance and ballast? What about safety? What about playing by the rules? And fine, if we’re not playing by the rules, how about trying it out once or twice before the biggest game of your post-Barca career?
There were 16,500 people at the Estádio do Dragão but it felt like more, such was the agreeable sensory shock at being there out in all that space and light and noise. It was a feeling of vagueness that seemed to transmit to City’s players.
The midfield looked like a three, then became a one with two in front for a while. It was fluid, it was loose, it was a kind of controlled whirl, the kind of rhythms that liberate players but also make huge demands of their in-game intelligence, the ability to read the flow.
The first chance of the game came from a long pass down the middle from the goalkeeper. Sterling really should have controlled the ball better and had a shot. And then for a while City just kind of fell apart. Suddenly there were spaces, channels, rivulets opening up in the backline. Three times Chelsea were able to carve a way through, let down on each occasion by Timo Werner’s reverse-Terminator impression, the man who can’t be called off but repeatedly refuses to kill you. He really should have scored twice and set the day decisively one way.
Throughout all this Pep was up on his feet in full crazed modernist-conductor guise, strutting left to right in skinny black match-day duds then suddenly whirling and lunging, doing rapid-fire double-handed midge-swats, pointing at things only he could see: objects, planes, holes, possibilities.
And as half-time approached Chelsea scored the goal they’d been almost but not quite scoring for the past 42 minuti. It was startlingly easy, made by a single, simple pass that cut through the heart of this City formation like a hot knife through butter made specifically, and to order, without any added Fernandinho.
Mason Mount, who had been busy and smart and neat all game, had so much time, too much time, the kind of time that breaks these games open. A kind of slackness had developed, a hole in City’s shared energy field. Mount picked out Kai Havertz making a wonderful driving run through the City midfield.
The ball travelled 45 yards along the ground uninterrupted, straight into that rangy, eager stride, the stride of a Victorian housemaster completing a particularly rugged early morning cross country dash. There was no flesh, no obstacle, no parts of this City team to create resistance. Havertz rounded Ederson and rolled the ball into an empty net.
As a goal to concede it was an embarrassment, evidence of some basic malfunction in structure. But it drew no answering shift, no admission from Guardiola of a lack of balance in his starting team. At half-time the City players trudged off looking bemused.
With an hour gone Fernandinho finally made an appearance, striding out into that central hole and restoring order as City began belatedly to wind up their spring, to apply those weather fronts of pressure to the Chelsea goal. As the game eased towards its end-point it already felt as though City had been asked to win it twice.