Manchester City’s Rodrigo celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal during the Champions League final between Manchester City and Inter Milan at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, June 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
It took 68 years and 68 minutes. But finally, after decades of anonymity and years of heartbreak, on a stage that once seemed unimaginable and more recently elusive, Manchester City conquered Europe.
City won its first Champions League, and its first continental crown of any kind, with a 1-0 victory over Inter Milan on Saturday. It labored, agonizingly, for much of the game, just as it had labored, agonizingly, for much of the 20th century. But with midnight near in Istanbul, Rodrigo stepped up to a loose ball at the top of the penalty area, and he, his team, this old English club, and the entire blue half of Manchester all broke through.
They won the first English treble since Manchester United in 1999, and punctuated their sheikh-fueled rise from mediocrity to the top of global football. For much of its history, City had made do as a second-class citizen in its own city. But then came the takeover, in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi royal family. City, blessed with instant riches, spent lavishly, perhaps illegally, more than any other club in the world — and built the undisputed best team on the planet.
But until Saturday, it had not summited the tallest mountain, the one on which everybody at the club became fixated. It had choked away Champions League semifinals, and lost the 2021 final as a favorite. If it happened again, head coach Pep Guardiola admitted, despite all the success, “something would be missing.”
And for 45 minutes, something was missing. Guardiola was getting out-coached in the spotlight, again. City was sloppy, and perhaps befuddled. Inter Milan — which, since 2009, has spent some $1 billion less than City — shut down all attacking avenues and neutralized the City machine. Kevin De Bruyne tweaked a hamstring and trudged off the field, his heart broken. It was 2021 all over again.
And at halftime, it was 0-0, advantage Inter. Some called it a tactical battle; it was, rather, a tactical bloodbath, with Inter coach Simone Inzaghi victorious.
The second half was similarly tense and even. It was precisely the type of game that, for years, would end with cruel luck or a City collapse — and doubts about Guardiola’s genius, and schadenfreude among those who detest City for its alleged (and allegedly brazen) financial rule-breaking.
But soccer has a way of rewarding those who put the “beautiful” in beautiful game. The money and off-field controversy are inextricable factors in their success, but on the field, Guardiola’s City have come closer to mastering this sport than anybody, ever. And on Saturday, at last, their patience paid off.
They had already won the English Premier League and FA Cup. They had already won the Final Before The Final, a gigantic semifinal clash with Real Madrid. They — the players, the coach, the staff — deserved a triumphant culmination.
And they got it, after a clever attacking move down the right, and that pinpoint, side-footed beauty from Rodri.
They survived some late scares, including a point-blank header that Romelu Lukaku — oh, poor Romelu Lukaku — will replay in his nightmares.
Ederson, the goalkeeper celebrated more for his left foot than his hands, made monstrous saves in the waning minutes.
Ruben Dias, the key to City’s rock-solid defense all season, was immense throughout.
Guardiola became the first coach to win two European trebles with two different clubs in two different countries, the latest confirmation of his managerial greatness.
And well beyond midnight at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, City, the reviled but irresistible juggernaut, lifted the one trophy it had been missing.