Inter Milan strikers Romelu Lukaku and Lauturo Martinez, Manchester City winger Jack Grealish and Inter coach Simone Inzaghi

Champions League final: Why Manchester City should fear Inter

The only thing likely to get in Manchester City’s way is Manchester City.

  • Alex Keble (@alexkeble) is a football journalist who specialises in tactical understanding, analysis and predictions of all aspects of the game

That is the perceived wisdom on the eve of their second Champions League final under Pep Guardiola - a man famous for over-thinking these late-stage European nights - and on the eve of the defining moment of his seven-year tenure.

Man City will win the Champions League eventually. Guardiola will get a third at some point, even if the current 12-year wait is long enough to leave him anxious. But if he and City throw this one away, on the cusp of a treble, after sublime performances against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and against arguably the weakest side to make the final this century? That would leave a permanent scar.

Kick-off time: 20:00 BST, Saturday

TV channel: BT Sport 1/BT Sport YouTube

Man City 4/9 | Draw 18/5 | Inter 6/1

You cannot lose games like this. You cannot afford to over-think it, to let the memories of previous failures linger, be they Chelsea and Kai Havertz in the 2021 final or – for Guardiola – be they the last time he faced Inter. Or maybe that does a disservice to the dark horses in Istanbul.

There is a good reason to bring up Inter’s famous victory over Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final in 2010, when, on the way to his own treble, Jose Mourinho parked the bus at the Camp Nou and lost 1-0 (winning 3-2 on aggregate) with 24% possession.

Jose Mourinho celebrates at the Camp Nou

Simone Inzaghi isn’t quite Mourinho, but he will more or less copy that template; more or less do what he can to haunt Guardiola with the ghosts of his past.

And it might work. The prevailing narrative, that this will be an easy-enough win for Man City if they simply stick to their game-plan, underestimates the effectiveness of Inter Milan’s reactive method and Man City’s vulnerability to those who deploy such tactics in a 5-3-2 formation.

This is not quite the match people seem to think it is.

Inter’s Brentford model can halt City

Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 formation has worked very well in the competition so far and although Inter have enjoyed a simple run to the final it’s worth noting they collected four points in the group stages against Barcelona, winning 1-0 at the San Siro with just 28% possession.

Xavi’s Barca are nothing like as purposeful or cohesive as Guardiola’s Man City, and certainly in the first half of the season were more like a caricature of the passive tiki-taka that’s so easy to defend in a low block, but nevertheless this match helps provide a template for how Inter will approach the game. As for Inzaghi, he will surely draw inspiration from Thomas Frank’s Brentford.

Brentford are the only team to do the double over Man City this season, and although the second meeting was a dead rubber, in which Guardiola rested his key players, that 2-1 win at the Etihad is instructive. As Ben Mee subsequently explained on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, their 3-5-2 involved a simple trick that allowed them to surround Erling Haaland while still getting tight to the creative number eights.

Ben Mee illustrates on Sky Sports MNF how Brentford halted Erling Haaland
Ben Mee illustrates on Sky Sports MNF how Brentford halted Erling Haaland

Sat deep and crowding the edge of the penalty area to slow City down, the flat back five shuffled across as the three centre-backs passed Haaland over to each other, leaving a wide centre-back free to rush out and close down Kevin de Bruyne or Ilkay Gundogan as they popped up in the half-spaces.

This is surely what Inter will do. The tactical pattern of the match, then, is fairly easy to follow: Man City will hold most of the ball and probe a deep-lying Inter shell ready to sit in, hold their own, and then launch counter-attacks through the two strikers and their bombing wing-backs.

Man City hate games like these, much preferring to face supposed equals, whose own attacking values leave them open to being sliced apart. If Inter can quieten the crowd and slow City’s football down, they stand a chance of resetting the narrative as frustration, then nervousness, creeps in to Man City’s play.

Lukaku & Martinez dangerous combo

Manchester United attempted to play a more conservative style of football in the FA Cup final and it almost worked, although in the end they were undone by an inability to make use of transitional moments, often appearing too disconnected to launch a counter-attack before Man City’s ruthless counter-press clamped down.

The difference with Inter is the use of two strikers who stick close together in the centre of the pitch.

Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez is a potentially lethal partnership on the break against the Man City back three, mainly because their interactions centrally – and dovetailing runs on the shoulder of the last defender – can not only disrupt the straightness of the City back line but also get away from Kyle Walker’s recovery pace.

Inter Milan strikers Romelu Lukaku and Lauturo Martinez

Walker is always the big problem, as it was for Marcus Rashford in the FA Cup final and Vinicius Junior in Real Madrid’s Champions League semi-final defeat.

But Lukaku will tend to power between Ruben Dias and Manuel Akanji, and if he and Martinez are on top form they will be a serious threat to Man City’s high defensive line.

Grealish v Dumfries

If Man City are indeed kept quiet with the deeper Inter shape - Haaland crowded out in the box and De Bruyne marked tightly in the middle - then much will rest on how Guardiola’s team can shift the ball from one wing to the other, pulling the Inter team from side to side until gaps begin to appear.

Jack Grealish has been in brilliant form recently and his dribbling, which magnetises defenders towards him to create space elsewhere, is the biggest weapon Man City have in this scenario.

Inter’s 5-3-2 allows for a wing-back (Denzel Dumfries) and a wide centre-back to double up on Grealish, particularly given that he does not have full-back support in Guardiola’s 3-2-2-3, so Inzaghi will be confident of success here.

Nevertheless should Inter get the tactical pattern they want, the one-to-one on City’s left is the battle to keep an eye on.

Our betting preview for Manchester City v Inter in the Champions League final
ALSO READ: Our betting preview for Manchester City v Inter in the Champions League final

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