Manchester is very much blue these days. Last week, Manchester United had the opportunity to stop Manchester City from getting their second trophy en route to a treble—an achievement that is exclusive to United in England. But, the Red Devils failed to win the FA Cup. Therefore, on June 10, when City play in the Champion's League final in Istanbul, all of Manchester may be blue—United fans could be thinking of, temporarily, ditching their traditional red kits in favour of black and blue. Not because they were beaten black and blue by City, but, because black and blue are Inter Milan's traditional colours.
The Italian giants are not the force they once were and City are undoubtedly the best in Europe now and, therefore, arguably, the best in the world. But, Inter, the only Italian team to win the treble (2009-2010), are in good form and play a 5-3-2—the only formation that has troubled City manager Pep Guardiola in recent years. Therefore, though City are odds-on favourites, there is hope for Inter (and United) fans. Here is a look at five key battles that could determine the outcome of the match:
Onana vs the City press
We start from the Inter box because that is the area of the pitch where most of the match is likely to take place. Andre Onana, 27, was dropped by the Cameroon coach after one match during the World Cup. The reason: The 6'3” keeper, who was a ward of current United manager Erik ten Hag at Ajax, was too progressive and adventurous with the ball at his feet. But, his technical ability and passing range will come in handy against City.
At the same time, he should expect to face the most difficult press he has ever encountered. Even a small mistake will have a big cost. Onana has to be at his absolute best, in terms of shot-stopping and, more importantly, with the ball at his feet. If he is able to keep calm and play his now-trademark chipped pass above the pressing City players, he could open the way for an Inter counterattack.
Haaland vs the back three
If Onana has to play the ball, instead of, repeatedly, picking it up from his net, the Inter defence has to deal with Erling Haaland. Going by recent form and fitness, the back three is likely to be Alessandro Bastoni, Francesco Acerbi and Matteo Darmian. A former United full-back, Darmian has filled in capably as a right-sided centre-back, but he seems like an obvious weakness on paper. But, he has been in the form of his life recently, albeit against teams vastly inferior to City.
The key would be to ensure that Haaland does not dominate in the air and that City are not given too much space to run in behind. The 35-year-old Acerbi, who has spent most of his career at mid-table Italian clubs, would have to have the game of his life. He would have to avoid getting into a foot race with Haaland, obviously, and has to ensure he hassles the Norwegian during physical battles. Other teams have shown that Haaland can be kept quiet. The Inter back three have to deny him a goal.
The midfield battle
Expect City to own the midfield, but Inter have enough quality to pick a pass and break through the City lines. But, then, so did Real Madrid. And there is no Toni Kroos or Luka Modric in this Inter team—even those two greats had struggled to string two passes together against City. What Inter do have is a Nicolo Barella. The feisty Italian is known for barrelling through opposition midfields. He would have to star for Inter to get a foothold in the midfield.
The biggest challenge for the Italian team, ironically, is not a City midfielder, but John Stones. Once a centre-back, but, after Guardiola's latest tactical tweak, he is now a defender-midfielder hybrid. Spare a thought for the guy who has to make the graphics showing the line-ups. Where will he put Stones? The Englishman is a defender when City is defending and becomes a holding midfielder when they attack. Since City are likely to attack for most of the game, we can expect to see Stones in midfield, alongside the frequently flawless Rodri, stifling Inter and cutting off their passing lanes.
Barella's two companions in midfield will both be technically sound, irrespective of who starts. Because the options are Hakan Calhanoglu, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcelo Brozovic. Calhanoglu and Mkhitaryan are both attack-minded players, but they have shown exceptional defensive discipline this season. So much so that, at times, Brozovic, one of the best defensive midfielders in world football has found himself on the bench. It would be interesting to see whether Inter coach Simone Inzaghi goes with Brozovic or one of Calhanoglu and Mkhitaryan for the final. But, whatever the combination, they have to avoid giving the ball away like Real Madrid did. The idea should be to bypass the midfield and lift the ball up to the two Inter strikers.
City defence vs the front two
It is a classic, almost obsolete, big man-little man attacking combination for Inter. The little man, Lautaro Martinez has recovered from a lacklustre World Cup for Argentina (winning it might have helped his confidence). And the big man is former City player Edin Dzeko. The 37-year-old Bosnian was never lighting fast, but now, he looks like he is running in slow motion. However, he is intelligent and effective as a target man for the hour that his body usually allows him to play.
Everyone from Onana will be looking to find Dzeko. His job will be to make a nuisance of himself and try to play the ball to Martinez or other runners from midfield or the wing-backs. It is not tactical genius and it is simple to the point of being scoffed at by the educated, modern football fan. But, it still works.
Wing-backs vs wingers
Inter's wing-backs have been highly effective this season. On the left, Federico Dimarco is adventurous in attack and reliable in defence. Right-wing-back Denzel Dumfries identifies as a winger. But, it works out because the thrust he provides pulls opposition wingers back, thereby making them less effective in attack. However, in City's Jack Grealish, Dumfries has to deal with someone who is industrious in defence and then goes up the other end and wreaks havoc.
On the right, too, Inter are outmatched as Dimarco will be facing the dogged and delightful Bernardo Silva. Both Grealish and Silva are capable of stifling the Inter wing-backs when they try to attack, and then bamboozling them in one-on-ones. Inter's best hope would be for their wing-backs to push relentlessly, thereby forcing the Man City men to do the same. Inter have specialists as back-up players in German Robin Gosens on the left and Italian Raoul Bellanova on the right. So, if the starters get tired, the subs can keep the high energy style going. The bad news for Inter is that City would have borderline world-class players on the bench in Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez.
It seems crazy to say considering City's talent pool, but the flanks are where this battle might be won or lost.