The Scars of 1994 Will Ensure Guardiola has Fierce Focus as City Seek Champions League Glory

When viewed through the prism of history, this European Champions League final is the ultimate mismatch. When Jose Mourinho’s mastery of football’s darker arts inspired Internazionale of Milan to their third title in 2010, completing a remarkable treble in the process, Manchester City had yet to even win a game in club football’s premier competition.

Along with Real Madrid and Portugal’s Benfica, Inter were one of European football’s first super clubs, winning the European Cup in back-to-back seasons in the mid-1960s. City were also a fine side back then, winning the English league title in 1967-68, the FA Cup in 1969 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1969-70, but they never enjoyed the status of Sir Matt Busby’s Manchester United, Bill Shankly’s Liverpool or even Don Revie’s Leeds United a few years later.

But even if the two clubs contesting the 2023 final seem polar opposites when it comes to legacy, they have more in common than you think. Since the Abu Dhabi Football Group bought City in the summer of 2008, the club has won the English Premier League seven times. When Pep Guardiola was installed as manager in 2016, City sat in a modest 11th place in UEFA’s rankings. Now, they sit top, ahead of Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Liverpool and Real Madrid, who have a combined 28 European Cup/Champions League wins between them.

Yet, no discussion of City’s success has been possible without allegations of ‘financial doping’, and talk of the creative accounting procedures that see the club still being investigated for multiple breaches of fair-play rules. It’s an asterisk next to their name that annoys Guardiola no end. Winning the club its first Champions League on Saturday night at the Ataturk Stadium on the outskirts of Istanbul would mean the world to him, but will in turn only lead to even more questions about how this dominant era came about.

It’s a feeling that Inter are all too familiar with. When they won the European Cup in 1963-64 and 1964-65, under the stewardship of the great Helenio Herrera, Inter were shadowed by allegations of foul play, especially with regard to the bribing of referees. Borussia Dortmund were the victims of some dodgy officiating in the 1964 semifinal, while it was Liverpool who suffered a year later.

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Having won 3-1 in the first leg at Anfield, they went back to the San Siro, and saw Inter score directly from an indirect free-kick. Joaquin Peiro, Inter’s speedy winger, then kicked the ball out of the hands of Tommy Lawrence, the Liverpool goalkeeper, to score a second. The great Giacinto Facchetti added a third, legal, goal, but by then, the stuffing had been knocked out of Liverpool.

Brian Glanville, one of the greats of football journalism, investigated bribery in Italian football for years, and wrote extensively about it. The unsavoury link between Angelo Moratti, Inter’s secretary, and Dezso Solti, a Hungarian fixer, has been written about by many, and it’s instructive to read what Liverpool’s players of that time had to say about Ortiz de Mendibil, the Spanish referee who was in charge of that second leg.   

Tommy Smith, the defender known as the Anfield Iron, kicked out at him as the teams left the field. “I hoofed him in the left ankle but he just kept on walking, just as he did when I was screaming el bastido at him,” said Smith in an interview with The Independent four decades later. “I also dragged him around [to face me] after the second goal, but he just fluttered away.”

Whatever the truth of those allegations, there have been no more popular winners of the European Cup than Glasgow Celtic in 1966-67. When they beat Inter 2-1 in the final with a starting XI who all grew up within 30 miles of each other, it wasn’t just the British media that viewed it as a triumph of good over evil. Celtic, under the great Jock Stein, played football on the front foot, attacking in wave after wave. Herrera’s Inter had fantastic players, but frequently resorted to time-wasting, simulation and ugly fouls. Once Celtic overcame Inter’s safety-first approach, catenaccio as tactic was largely discredited. 

Inter would reach only more final in more than four decades, as Europe celebrated fabulous attacking sides like the Ajax one that beat them in the 1972 final, Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich and Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan. It was deeply ironic then that when Inter finally won it again, they did so with Mourinho borrowing liberally from the Herrera playbook in the semifinal against Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Inter’s clinical finishing on home turf – Barcelona had to travel to Italy by bus because ash from a volcanic eruption in Iceland had made flying impossible – saw them establish a 3-1 lead. And though Thiago Motta was set off in the 28th minute of the return, Inter’s sheer tenacity helped them restrict Barcelona to just one late goal.

Simone Inzaghi’s side will need similar fortitude against City on Saturday night. They can expect to be swamped by light-blue shirts. Kevin de Bruyne will come through the middle, and Jack Grealish from the left. Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan will take up clever positions between the lines, while Erling Haaland will give the centre-backs the sternest examination they’ve had all season. Even when Inter do make it into opposition territory, they will need to be wary of the speed with which Kyle Walker, John Stones, Rodri and Manuel Akanji can switch defence into attack.

On paper, this is a total mismatch. City have just won a fifth English title in six seasons, and added the FA Cup to it last weekend. Inter, Coppa Italia winners, lost 12 times while finishing third in Serie A. But Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku have found form just at the right time, and Guardiola will know from bitter personal experience that there is no such thing as a foregone conclusion in sport.

In 1994, two years after Barcelona had won their first European Cup at Wembley, Guardiola was part of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team that took on AC Milan in the Champions League final in Athens. “Barcelona are favourites,” Cruyff had said with utmost confidence on the eve of the match. “We’re more complete, competitive and experienced than at Wembley. Milan are nothing out of this world. They base their game on defence; we base ours on attack.”

Fabio Capello’s Milan tore Barcelona apart, winning 4-0. It would take Barcelona more than a decade to get back to the final. But even as Inter revel in the underdog role in Istanbul, you can rest assured that Guardiola will leave no stone unturned when it comes to preparation. The scars of 1994 won’t heal, and City certainly aren’t going to be overconfident or cavalier in their approach.

Inter, currently 11th in the UEFA rankings, have done remarkably well to get to this final. But getting their hands on the trophy, against a side that Guardiola has built for this moment over the past seven years, will simply be a bridge too far.

RevSportz Prediction: Manchester City 3 – 1 Internazionale

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