Manchester City scrapped and fought their way into the history books – a victory in adversity – to win their first Uefa Champions League, becoming only the second English club to claim “the treble” after this season’s FA Cup and Premier league triumphs.
On a nervous night in Istanbul, and despite losing their Belgian playmaker Kevin De Bruyne in the 35th minute to injury, City snatched the game away from Internazionale in the 68th minute with one of their few shots on target to take the final piece of silverware.
Sheikh Mansour, attending only his second City match since taking over the club in 2008, may have to expand the trophy cabinet in his office at the Ministry of Presidential Affairs in Abu Dhabi.
He is said to have replica of every piece of silverware won during his tenure in a glass box. The Champions League trophy now joins the seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups and six Football League Cups won during his tenure.
It may be only the second piece of European silverware won by City in the club’s 140 year history, after their 1970 European cup winners cup, but this win could well mark the turning of a new page in English football.
City become the 23rd club to have won the Uefa Champions League or its precursor, the European Cup, and will now be hoping to be a dominant force for years to come.
They can have every expectation that this will be the case, with record annual revenues for an English club now secured and plans already submitted to expand their Etihad Stadium to more than 60,000 capacity.
The win was perhaps all the more significant as it was secured with heart and graft rather than the usual seemingly effortless grace that has been the hallmark of Pep Guardiola’s team this season.
“We are the boys in blue and we are coming for you,” the City fans roared at the finale of what was an unexpectedly tense and tight game in front of 72,000 fans in the Atatürk Olympic Stadium.
It was Guardiola’s third Champions League victory as a manager. He won twice with Barcelona and had spoken of his “obsession” with taking it for City. The Spanish manager, who many will now hail as the greatest in the sport’s history, broke down in tears as the match came to its conclusion.
“It was written in the stars,” Guardiola said in a post match interview. “It belongs to us. We weren’t at our best level. After the World Cup the team made a step forward and we were there. It wasn’t our best performance.”
Asked how he was feeling, he added: “Tired, calm, satisfied of course … this fucking trophy, it’s so difficult to win it. It’s a question of being patient and you have to be lucky.”
Such a treble slam dunk on the domestic and European stage has only been achieved once before, by local rivals Manchester United, in the 1998-99 season when City were at their lowest ebb, fighting to get out of the third tier of the domestic leagues.
City had, nevertheless, been by far and away the bookmakers’ favourites, with even Inter fans on the way into the stadium conceding that they were the underdogs. Yet the script of an effortless walkover was soon ripped up.
Nerves on and off the pitch were evident right from the start. City appeared to lose track of their Premier League cruise control button, with their usual fluidity making way for stray passes and anguished looks.
In the stands, it was Inter making the atmosphere while the supporters in sky blue – after what was a long day for some before the 10pm kick-off – struggled to find their voice.
Not once did the Inter fans stop waving their multitude of blue and yellow flags, large and small, perhaps for fear of breaking the spell. For much of the game the Italians appeared to have the upper hand, although their chances on goal were limited.
City’s star Norwegian striker, Erling Haaland, uncharacteristically missed two openings in the first 20 minutes. They may not have fitted the definition of full chances on goal for any lesser number nine but such is his ability that he could have expected to put at least one away. Passes continued to go astray, nerves were jangling.
Then De Bruyne’s dream was torn in two: a hamstring strain. The midfielder tried to keep on going but as he was waved to the bench there was the hint of something other than perspiration moistening his eyes. “I’m OK”, he mouthed as his teammates came to console him as he limped off the pitch.
It was proving to be a box of broken biscuits of a first half for City rather than the expected tray of turkish delight. Guardiola threw himself to his knees and the scrappiness continued deep into the second half.
Inter, who finished third in Serie A, won the most recent of their three Champions League titles back in 2010 when José Mourinho was the manager, and yet their tails were up.
Then, out of nowhere, in the 68th minute, as Haaland appealed for a handball in the Internazionale box, a chance fell in the middle of the box to Rodri, a defensive footballer with a knack for scoring timely goals. He calmly passed the ball into the bottom-right-hand corner of the goal from 16 yards, prompting City’s bench to storm the pitch.
Internazionale surged forwards and could have equalised in the closing stages but for loose finishing by substitute striker Romelu Lukaku. City players threw themselves to the floor as the whistle blew.
Back in 1968, after edging out Manchester United to win the 1968 league title, assistant manager Malcolm Allison had predicted that City would run riot and take the European cup on their first foray.
“I promise you City will attack these people as they have not been attacked since the days of the old Real Madrid,” he had said. “I think a lot of these European people are cowards.”
It was not true then – City’s participation in the 1968-69 European Cup ended in the first round after losing to Fenerbahçe – and it was certainly not true on this humid evening in Istanbul. Nevertheless, they did surely put behind them any lingering doubt over this team by securing the top European trophy after a series of disappointing campaigns and the 2021 loss to Chelsea in the final in Porto.