Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel's fondness for sharing a few drinks and intense tactical discussions during their time in Germany has been frequently referenced this week.

In Porto, they have a perfect setting. They could sample some of the fortified wine that takes its name from the Portuguese city, settle in for a Douro Valley red, some Vinho Verde or perhaps a pint of Super Bock or Sagres.

Of course, Saturday's Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea means they are unlikely to find the time and that's before we consider the 10:30pm curfew in place as part of Portugal's COVID-19 measures.

Whoever raises a glass at Estadio do Dragao will do so after a sharp change in fortunes mid-season.

Guardiola said City "were not the team I can recognise" in mid-December before a doubling down on his core principles to inspire a 21-game winning run across all competitions that propelled them towards the Premier League title, the EFL Cup and their first taste of European club football's biggest occasion.

Around the same time, Tuchel was days away from the sack at Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea were top of the Premier League. By the end of January, he was installed at Stamford Bridge as Frank Lampard's successor to helm a team in freefall. They have not looked back.

Take the ball, pass the ball

Handily, when it comes to comparisons, Tuchel took over at the halfway point of the English top-flight season in terms of games played.

Lampard's Chelsea won eight, drew five and lost three of their 19 games this term, with Tuchel improving those returns to W11 D5 L3. Two of the three losses came in the final three games of the domestic season.

"[Keeping] the ball is the best way to defend and people have to keep the ball in difficult circumstances," Guardiola said when discussing City's newfound solidity this season – and it is a view to which Tuchel certainly subscribes.

His Blues average 654.2 passes per game in the Premier League, compared to 613 under Lampard. Despite Chelsea's well-documented struggles in terms of prolific goalscoring, their touches in the opposition box are up from 26.1 to 30.3 every 90 minutes.

At the other end, they are facing fewer shots (7.6 down from 10.1) and their expected goals against (xGA) figure has dipped from one per game to 0.6.

In short, they are keeping the ball more and facing fewer shots, partly because more of their possession is happening in the opposition box. Playing against Tuchel's Chelsea, you are likely to find the ball further away from where you ideally want it.

Three is the magic number

Once teams manage to glimpse a fleeting sight of the Chelsea goal, they tend to find a formidable three-man backline in the way. The veteran Thiago Silva has been an assured presence in the heart of defence for Tuchel, with Antonio Rudiger revitalised after struggling under Lampard.

Changing to a 3-4-2-1 formation has been the hallmark of the former Borussia Dortmund coach's reign to date.

"The upside of it is that back three can be more aggressive," former Manchester City defender Nedum Onuoha, who operated at centre-back and right-back during his playing days, told Stats Perform.

"When you're in a two, you're reluctant to go all the way with somebody because it creates a vast amount of space behind you for somebody else.

"But when you have the security of two other players, then a striker dropping short is your invitation to go all the way with them. It suits the way you play because you can defend in a more aggressive manner instead of always worrying about behind you."

While Chelsea have found instant success with this shape since Tuchel's arrival, it is one Guardiola has dabbled in at City but never found his players completely comfortable. What's more, he would probably rather not be facing three centre-backs in his first Champions League final for a decade.

Since the start of the 2019-20 season, City have a 76.7 per cent win rate against teams fielding a back four (P73 W56). This drops to 69.6 per cent versus three/five at the back (P46 W32), still a high win ratio but a notable dip given their incredibly high standards overall.

The pressing matter

Not all back threes are created equally, though. Some of the teams to have frustrated City in this shape have used it as a means to get as many men behind the ball as possible and soak up waves of pressure, with wing-backs not overly concerned about matters beyond the halfway line.

Even if Tuchel opts for the more cautious option of Cesar Azpilicueta at wing-back on Saturday, Chelsea certainly do not fall into this category. With N'Golo Kante and the playmaking talents of Jorginho stationed as a deep-lying midfield pairing in front of their central defenders, they have the capabilities to smoothly play through any opposition press.

This is an intriguing ploy against Guardiola's men, given the manner in which they made their pressing game more efficient this year. City led the Premier League in terms of high turnovers (377) and shot-ending high turnovers (80), meaning no team was more prolific in terms of regaining possession within 40 metres of the opposition goal.

The champions achieved this despite allowing 11.5 passes per defensive action (PPDA), down from 10.1 last season. They were a little happier to let opponents have the ball and picked their moments to press and turnover possession judiciously.

It is an astute tweak that speaks well of Guardiola's impeccable eye for what he refers to as "the small details", but against a Chelsea team so assured on the ball from deep and with the numbers in terms of centre-backs and holding midfielders in their favour, City's work without the ball in opposition territory will have to be almost perfect.

Chelsea (187) were second to City (220) for build-up attacks in the Premier League in 2020-21 and Tuchel will meet Guardiola head-on in this regard. If they end up pumping it long to Olivier Giroud at some stage, it will mean plan A has failed.

False nines and false selections

How much bearing Chelsea's two wins against City over the course of the past six weeks will have on proceedings has been a subject to ponder.

Well, not for Guardiola, who insists a 1-0 FA Cup semi-final loss and fairly bizarre 2-1 Premier League reverse will have "zero" impact.

At Friday's pre-match news conference, Tuchel acknowledged Chelsea would face a very different City in Porto but spoke in positive terms about how his team had "closed the gap" over the course of two rehearsals that showed his players the level of "struggle" required to beat these opponents.

The City line-ups for both recent encounters were heavily rotated on the weekends after their respective Champions League quarter-final and semi-final wins over Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain.

Such is the strength of City's back-up options that their limp display at Wembley was a disappointment, but a team featuring three central defenders, four forwards and Rodri as a lone central midfielder at the Etihad Stadium looked like wanton deception from Guardiola, not wanting to give Chelsea the full City experience with the final looming. Sergio Aguero's Panenka penalty was perhaps sillier than the team sheet, although it was a close-run thing.

Now, Chelsea are likely to face the Champions League version. All fleet of foot, sleight of hand and without a recognised striker. If Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez are charged with pegging back the considerable attacking threat provided by the opposition wing-backs, the onus will then fall on Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan to move Chelsea's midfield and defensive blocks around until they feel like they've been shoved in a blender.

"It'll be interesting. Chelsea have been good at the back because they've been so front foot, but that's when you play against teams with a nine," Onuoha said. "If City go over there with no recognised striker, it puts those three centre-backs in a position they've not had to face before.

"City, as a consequence, could control the midfield more than Chelsea have seen in the past and it will frustrate [Kante and Jorginho] and the defenders, because you can't step out to affect it.

"Playing against false nines is annoying. You're playing against guys with a high football IQ. As a defender, you want to have a match-up with somebody.

"If you play against a team with a really good false nine, they're always right between the six (defensive midfielder) and yourself to the point where you can't drag the six back in to defend against them and you can't venture out that far to deal with them."

Tuchel and Guardiola have been keen dismiss the significance of their battle of wits on the touchline, but whoever prevails will have earned themselves a few big glasses of whatever they fancy.

What does the future hold for Achraf Hakimi?

In his first season with Inter, the Morocco international claimed the Scudetto.

However, his time in Milan could already be coming to an end.

 

TOP STORY – HAKIMI TO PSG?

Paris Saint-Germain want to sign star Inter full-back Achraf Hakimi, according to Fabrizio Romano.

Inter won the Serie A in 2020-21 but find themselves in a tough financial situation due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with head coach Antonio Conte already opting to depart.

Hakimi, Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez and Alessandro Bastoni could reportedly be sold to ease some of the economic pressure at San Siro.

PSG are believed to be interested, though Inter are demanding more than €60million for the 22-year-old, who only joined from Real Madrid at the start of the season.

Madrid have the right of first refusal and can match any offer for their former defender, while Bayern Munich and Chelsea have also been linked.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Daily Mail claims Arsenal are plotting a shock bid for Manchester City star Raheem Sterling. The England international found himself out of Pep Guardiola's starting XI at times in 2020-21. Madrid and Barca have been previously linked.

Paul Pogba remains a dream signing for Juventus, reports Calciomercato. Sassuolo's Manuel Locatelli and Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez have emerged as targets for Juve, though the Bianconeri are still keen on Manchester United star Pogba, though Udinese's Rodrigo De Paul is an alternative.

- Romano says Barca are open to selling Philippe Coutinho, though Arsenal are not interested in the former Liverpool attacker.

Lionel Messi's contract extension is a priority for Barca before any new signings are made, according to the front page of Saturday's Mundo Deportivo. Barca have been tipped to bring in Lyon captain Memphis Depay, Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and Manchester City pair Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia on free transfers. Gianluigi Donnarumma – another free agent option as his Milan contract expires – is also a possible recruit.

- According to Romano and widespread reports in Italy, Luciano Spalletti has agreed to replace Gennaro Gattuso as Napoli head coach.

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel does not believe Saturday's Champions League final against Manchester City will hinge upon the tactical battle between himself and Pep Guardiola.

Much has been made of Tuchel and Guardiola's friendship and mutual admiration in the build-up to the showpiece encounter at Estadio do Dragao.

The former Paris Saint-Germain boss is back in the final less than a year after the Ligue 1 giants were beaten by Bayern Munich and he feels multiple factors will be at play – including Chelsea's wins over City in the FA Cup and Premier League this season.

"It’s much more than that. I would never suggest that it's me against him," he told a pre-match news conference in Porto. "We don't have a match of tennis tomorrow.

"We arrive with our teams. Pep will prepare his team and I will prepare my team in the best way possible.

"We have two different experiences against them in different competitions. Two different matches, two different line-ups. Tomorrow I think they will be a very different line-up from Man City."

Guardiola heavily rotated his City line-up for the two most recent encounters against Chelsea, coming as they did on the back of Champions League quarter-final and semi-final triumphs over Borussia Dortmund and PSG.

Nevertheless, Tuchel appeared to differ from his counterpart's assessment that those results had "zero" bearing over what will unfold this weekend.

"We have the experience of how much we have to suffer and how brave and courageous we need to play in certain moment of the game," he said.

"It's always tough to play against City, Bayern or Barcelona when Pep is at the sideline. He creates these teams with huge belief and a continuously winning mentality.

"They are maybe, at the moment, the strongest team in the world. They have built a huge gap between them and us in the league.

"We closed the gap for 90 minutes at Wembley, we closed it for 90 minutes at City and this is what we want to do tomorrow.

"We are very well aware that Man City is the benchmark with this team and this manager over the last years, but in football you are always able to close the gap.

"We closed the gap twice. We were courageous, we were brave and we were suffering together. We had a strong belief and strong quality."

Suffering is something Tuchel was happy to report had declined from view for N'Golo Kante and Edouard Mendy, with the influential midfielder and goalkeeper both passed fit.

Indeed, removing the mental strain has been a focus for the 47-year-old as his team aim to bounce back from defeat to Leicester City in the FA Cup final and losses in two of their final three Premier League games that saw them finish 19 points behind champions City.

"Don't get me wrong, I don't want to pretend this is a normal week," he said. "Everybody feels different about it, but we arrive and the countdown is on for a big, big match.

"It's a very exciting, demanding week mentally and physically. We have to get it right, the coaches have to get it right.

"Today was a very relaxed day, we had the possibility to enjoy some quality time in the hotel in beautiful weather to relax and breathe a bit, to connect with our core, with our love of the game and the passion we all shared as little kids.

"The tension is building very naturally. We don't want to arrive in a final over-excited or arrive in a final under-excited."

Tuchel added: "To be nervous, you can use it to be on your best level. Pressure is sometimes a huge boost and sometimes it is a big backpack to carry. Just admit it and let's be who we are. We are a strong group."

Ilkay Gundogan withdrew before the end of Manchester City's training session on the eve of their Champions League final clash with Chelsea in Porto.

Gundogan, who is the Premier League champions' top scorer in all competitions this term with 17 goals this term, appeared to be suffering from discomfort in his right thigh after a collision with captain Fernandinho.

City's practice match at Estadio do Dragao continued in the Germany international's absence, with the players and manager Pep Guardiola retaining an overall relaxed demeanour – suggesting the nature of Gundogan's knock, being impact rather than muscular, meant it was not a major cause for concern.

Gundogan is the only member of the City squad to have featured in a Champions League final when he scored from the penalty spot in Borussia Dortmund's 2-1 defeat to Bayern Munich at Wembley in 2013.

The 30-year-old has been instrumental in City regaining the Premier League and retaining the EFL Cup this season, although he was an unused substitute for last weekend's 5-0 victory over Everton after being substituted following a blow to the knee in a 3-2 defeat at Brighton and Hove Albion.

"I'm alright, I was a little bit cautious in that Brighton game," he said when asked about his fitness earlier this week.

"Because of the knock on my knee I started to feel all the muscles around it a little bit and I didn't want to pull anything.

"I didn't miss any training sessions, so I'm feeling good."

All other members of Guardiola's first team squad trained, with no fitness concerns mentioned by the manager at his pre-match news conference.

Pep Guardiola showed virtually no signs of nerves heading into Manchester City's Champions League final showdown with Chelsea in Porto, serenely declaring himself to be "the happiest man in the world".

Guardiola's news conference on the eve of this weekend's showpiece at Estadio do Dragao also marked the 10-year anniversary of his Barcelona side beating Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley to be crowned European champions.

That was the last of two coaching triumphs for the 50-year-old in the competition he adores, as he went on to suffer three consecutive semi-final losses in charge of Bayern Munich, before failing to guide City beyond the quarter-finals until a superb run this season, when they navigated Borussia Monchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain while scoring four times in each tie.

"Good memories, but it's a long time ago," Guardiola said, reflecting on that defining triumph in London. "It's nice to remember what we lived through, the feelings we had before and after. In that final we expressed what we'd worked four years for."

A year later, Guardiola left Barcelona and the club's infamously tempestuous internal politics for a year on sabbatical, putting recent reports of club president Joan Laporta's desire to bring his old coach back to Camp Nou in reasonable context.

The contrast in his relationship with the board at City, including former Barca executives Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, does much to explain his satisfaction in a post where he committed to a two-year extension last November before securing a third Premier League title in four years.

"I have friends above me, the players have the feeling I'm the manager as I've been supported by chairman, CEO and sporting director," he said.

"I feel comfortable with my backroom staff, I have everything. I cannot ask for more to do my job.

"I'm the happiest man in the world to be here [in the final]. It's an honour and privilege."

Guardiola's more relaxed demeanour has not escaped the attention of his players, with Kevin De Bruyne noting a drop in intensity was necessitated by this season's more condensed schedule - a switch that paid dividends as City romped to the Premier League title after a slow start.

"I guess the whole season we have done less technical training, less meetings," he said. "I think it would come from a point where we had so many games after each other and it became maybe too much for the team and himself.

"He gave us a little more breathing space I would say and, in the end, maybe he saw it was working and the team were responding well to it."

As such, one of Guardiola's more outlandish selections feels unlikely in Porto, even considering his relish of a tactical battle with Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel, who he holds in high regard.

Throughout the knockout stages, City have played for the majority of the time without a recognised striker, their threat coming form the combined creative midfield talents of De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez.

"I know exactly the way we want to play, with who we are going to play," Guardiola added. "I'm not going to bother [the players] much

"The guys who will be anxious and nervous, I want to tell them it’s normal. The guys who are more relaxed, it's good as well."

As City try to win the one major honour that has eluded them during the Guardiola era, there seems little doubt to which of those categories their manager belongs.

Joan Laporta says he is eager to see Pep Guardiola lift the Champions League trophy amid reports the Manchester City boss is his top target to coach Barcelona.

It was suggested this week that Barca president Laporta will make an audacious attempt to persuade Guardiola to return to Camp Nou after the Champions League final.

Laporta reportedly wishes to speak to Guardiola - who is under contract with City until 2023 after signing a new deal last year - before determining his next move with under-pressure incumbent Ronald Koeman.

Guardiola enjoyed a hugely successful spell at the Barca helm between 2008 and 2012, winning the Spanish title for three successive seasons, as well as the Champions League twice.

"If you want to ask me about Pep, I wish that he wins the Champions League with City on Saturday," Laporta said on Friday.

"I am not here to talk about my dreams. I focus on realities and like to make my dreams come true, not talk about them.

"May he win the Champions League with Barca and City; I think it will be wonderful for him and also for all of us who love him.

"That is the only thing in my head when we talk about Guardiola. I can't wait to watch the final and I hope Pep can win it because he is a good friend of mine."

It remains to be seen whether Koeman will be around to continue with the new Barca project.

The Dutchman, who has one year left on his contract, is set to hold a fresh round of talks with Laporta in the near future after completing his first campaign in charge.

Koeman and his agent met with Laporta this week for an initial conversation and the president asked him to wait for a verdict while he looked at alternative options.

Former Barca player Xavi, currently in charge of Al Sadd in Qatar, has also been heavily linked with the job.

"Xavi will be a great coach and he is a friend but we have nothing specific," said Laporta.

"These are names that sound good - everyone wants them to come, but we are in a different situation now than when we bet on [Frank] Rijkaard or Guardiola, plus we don't want to involve Ronald in more stories.

"Out of respect we owe Koeman, he has a current contract and don't rule it out [that he stays]. We are talking.

"There are no transitional seasons at Barca. We [the new board] arrived halfway through the season and said we would give our evaluation of the coach at the end of the season and communicate our decisions then.

"We've always worked with the maximum respect for Ronald Koeman. Of course, the admiration we have for him as the player who won us the European Cup at Wembley, and he still has a contract in place.

"At the end of the season we will evaluate his time here and make decisions accordingly. We spoke to Koeman and will continue to do so when making important decisions."

A lifetime of going toe-to-toe with bigger boys stands Phil Foden in perfect stead for the biggest game in European club football on Saturday.

Foden, who turned 21 on Friday, has enjoyed a superb season for Premier League champions Manchester City, progressing from undoubted talent and potential to be one of the first names on Pep Guardiola's team sheet.

The attacking midfielder's rise has delighted Steve Eyre, a former youth coach at City who oversaw some of Foden's earliest steps on the road to stardom.

"It's amazing, really. He just keeps evolving and getting better. As a supporter, first and foremost, I am mesmerised by some of his performances and capabilities," Eyre told Stats Perform ahead of the Champions League final between City and Chelsea at Estadio do Dragao this weekend.

"His temperament has come to the fore recently, now that the opposition are more aware of him. There are more people wanting to foul him, there are more people wanting to mark him tighter."

Foden joined City as an eight-year-old and Eyre said: "He's got such a hunger and such a desire to affect the scoreline in a variety of positions now that I don’t think the lad himself knows what his best position is."

Nedum Onuoha was a product of the youth set-up, overseen by Jim Cassell – viewed by Eyre as "the best academy manager of his generation" – that serviced City's first team after the turn of the century, producing the likes of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Micah Richards, Daniel Sturridge and Kieran Trippier.

Nevertheless, despite that esteemed list of internationals, ex-City defender Onuoha believes Foden's gifts put him on another level.

"I wouldn't necessarily say there are going to be a ton of people like Foden to come after him, because for me - not to downplay the people that came before - he's the best player I've ever seen come out of our academy," Onuoha told Stats Perform.

"That academy has seen players come through who've won Premier Leagues, not just at City, like Kasper Schmeichel. You've had players come through and play for England. But in terms of actual talent and ability, the fact Phil can fit into this City team, like he has done over the past couple of years, says a lot about how good he actually is.

"From hearing little things, from players and people who spend time with him, he's got this obsession with winning and an obsession with getting better. And a true love for the football club."

Foden's capacity to excel was spotted quickly by Cassell's team and Eyre had a conversation with the player's father, asking if he could train for an extra night a week to mix it with the older age groups.

"He said 'no problem', he agreed," the coach recalled, before explaining the rationale.

"It's very important that you don't divorce a boy from his childhood. It's important that he plays with lads his own age and mixes and socialises with them. The challenge for Phil – we think it suited him; it doesn't necessarily suit others – was to design a mixed age-group programme for him.

"Very quickly he had to find a way to make space and find space to avoid contact with the big boys. When everything became a bit more familiar, they wanted to get stuck into him a little bit and make sure he didn’t have everything his own way. What he had to do then was the opposite and learn how to take contact.

"What you see now, with his incredible balance, is he's absolutely amazing at avoiding contact.

"When he takes contact these days, he either wins the physical battle with upper-body strength or if he's thrown to the floor he's very, very durable and he just pulls his socks back up, looks at the referee for a little bit of support, gets on his feet and gets playing again."

Even if emulating Foden will prove beyond most of the hopefuls who tread the pitches at the City Football Academy, Onuoha believes his progress to become a first-team star for Pep Guardiola and England boss Gareth Southgate provides a shining light for City's next generation.

"It does matter because it justifies the academy, it justifies why your kid comes into the place," Onuoha said. "If you don't have somebody in the first team who's come through the ranks, you start to ask bigger questions about what's the point.

"But ultimately, City do invest in their academy. It doesn't guarantee that everybody will play for the first team, but it shows that you can. Seeing an academy face, especially a Mancunian one for fans, that really, really matters and it makes you feel excited. It shows that pathway is still there."

Onuoha added: "When Phil was growing up, there were people in City's first team who he was looking up to, like a David Silva. Who's to say that the next Phil Foden-level talent isn't looking at him now? They're 10 years old, thinking, 'I want to be like Phil Foden'."

Phil Foden turned 21 on Friday, the day before he will play for Manchester City in arguably the biggest game in his boyhood club's history.

For all Foden's understated public persona and the unfussy way he goes about his business on the field, such a high-stakes landmark has felt inevitable since he emerged as a precocious and remarkably fully formed talent four years ago.

"I don't have words. I would like to have the right words to describe what I saw," Pep Guardiola told reporters after Foden sparkled in an International Champions Cup friendly against Manchester United in Houston, Texas.

"You are lucky guys, believe me, you are the guys who saw his first game in the first team at Manchester City. I've not seen something like I saw today for a long time. His performance was another level."

It is a level at which Foden has largely remained, meaning Guardiola frequently had to resist clamour to give the youngster more game-time. Over the past six months, he has become one of the first names on the team-sheet, so that is no longer a problem.

Ilkay Gundogan, the only City player to have previously featured in a Champions League final, when Borussia Dortmund lost to Bayern Munich in 2013, expects Foden to take Saturday's encounter with Chelsea at Estadio do Dragao smoothly in his stride.

"Phil has become one of our main players throughout the season," Gundogan said. "He's doing incredibly well, he improved in so many details of his game, mainly in taking the right decisions at crucial times.

"For such a young age it is really impressive. I wouldn't recommend him to change anything from what he's done over the past few weeks. He is one of the game-changers for us and he can be one on Saturday."

Next on the horizon will be the European Championship, where Gareth Southgate will have designs on Foden being a game-changer for England. It could be a momentous few weeks for the quicksilver attacker, so it feels like a very good time to have a look at some of the numbers – from one to 21 – that got him to this point.

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Foden has scored 31 times for City in all competitions but few have been as important as goal number one in the Premier League. Starting for just the second time in the top-flight, he showed an aptitude for timing runs into the box to nod home Sergio Aguero's header across goal against Tottenham in April 2019. It was the only goal of the game, coming four days after Spurs knocked City out of the Champions League in dramatic fashion and at the business end of a knife-edge title battle with Liverpool, where Guardiola's side prevailed by a point, 98 to 97.

In the book Pep's City by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin, Foden was described as "lighting up the darkness that engulfed the first team squad in training" after the Champions League heartbreak.

                               *********************

Foden probably overhauled that Spurs goal twice in the eight days when he made it two winning goals in two against Borussia Dortmund in this season's Champions League quarter-finals. First, he struck in stoppage time for a 2-1 win in Manchester after Marco Reus equalised for the visitors, and then he smashed home from a short corner to spark frenzied touchline celebrations with Guardiola as City won by the same scoreline at Signal Iduna Park.

It meant Foden was the second player under the age of 21 to score in both legs of a Champions League quarter-final after Kylian Mbappe, who did so for Monaco against Dortmund in 2017. Considering the prolific start to Mbappe's career in Europe's elite club competition and his exclusive use as a forward, Foden shapes up pretty well by comparison. In 1,544 minutes of Champions League football he has 11 goal involvements (six goals, five assists). After 1,540 minutes in the tournament, Mbappe had 17 (12 goals, five assists).

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The 2020-21 season saw Foden make it three Premier League winners' medals for his personal collection. He has played a far bigger part this time around. All of his five appearances in 2017-18 came from the bench. When City retained the league the following year, that vital winner versus Spurs was his only goal involvement in three starts and 10 outings as a sub.

This time around, Foden played in 28 of City's 38 matches, starting 17. His final-day goal against Everton took his Premier League tally to nine, alongside five assists.

                               *********************

After his first trip away with the England senior side ended in ignominy last September, Foden needed something special to fire himself back into the Euro 2020 reckoning upon his return. He duly delivered in November with a first international goal against Iceland at Wembley. His second followed four minutes later.

At 20 years and 174 days, he was the youngest England player in history to score more than once in a game at Wembley.

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Foden has truly excelled since making the left-wing spot his own at City this season. When Aston Villa arrived at the Etihad Stadium for a thrilling encounter in January he was in full flight. Five shots and six chances created over the course of a 2-0 win made him the youngest player to register 10+ shot involvements in a game under Guardiola at 20 years and 237 days.

He overtook a certain Lionel Messi, who managed the feat against Sporting Gijon at 21 years and 89 days in 2008 – during Guardiola's first season in charge of Barcelona – giving a timely reminder that Foden has come under his tutelage at an earlier stage of development.

"I didn't meet Leo Messi at 17 years old like when I met Phil. And at that age, I never saw a player with this potential," Guardiola told BT Sport. "But you have to see them on pitch in the biggest stages, and he is a guy who is comfortable, who loves to play."

                                    *********************

Following his first pre-season tour with the senior City squad, Foden served loud notice of his potential by standing above his peers in England's 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup win. Featuring in all seven of his country's games in India, scoring three times, including two in the 5-2 final victory over Spain, Foden was named player of the tournament.

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The prizes have continued to stack up for Foden, with this season's Premier League being a major trophy number eight in City colours. Alongside three league titles are four EFL Cups in succession and the 2019 FA Cup, where he scored three times over the course of the competition to help complete a domestic treble.

He also starred in Community Shield triumphs against Chelsea and Liverpool in 2018 and 2019 respectively, but we're not counting those as major honours. Don't tell Pep!

                               *********************

Although a knack for scoring crucial goals has been a defining feature of his early career, Foden's reputation is built upon his exceptional creative skills. In 2019-20, as his prominence in Guardiola's plans was increasing, he supplied nine assists from 41 chances created, placing him fifth overall for City in all competitions as Kevin De Bruyne led the way with an absurd 22 assists from 177 chances created.

This season, De Bruyne is still out in front (18 assists, 111 chances created) but Foden is up next on 10 assists. He has created 75 chances overall, 13 of which have been classed as big chances by Opta.

                               *********************

But back to those goals, because this is certainly an area where he has shifted rapidly through the gears. In 2020, Foden completed the calendar year with 11 to his name. He already has the same amount in 2021 heading into Saturday's final.

"I am feeling really confident in front of goal. Every chance I get, I feel like I am going to score,” he told Sky Sports last year, having put his time to good use during lockdown..

"I was in okay form before we broke up, if I am honest, but I have come back flying. Through quarantine I tried to work on some things like one-on-ones and come back stronger."

                           *********************

Much like the goals and assists stats, another Foden figure that is likely to climb rapidly over the coming months and years is the fact he has only started 12 competitive games against the other members of English football's 'big six', including Community Shield meetings with Chelsea and Liverpool.

"Now Phil is demanding other things from the manager," Guardiola said in his BT Sport interview with Rio Ferdinand. "Before, play five minutes, 20 minutes he is happy; play Carabao Cup, he is happy. Now next season, don't play him in a Champions League game, see what happens. He is another status, he is going to demand."

This status looks like being beneficial to Guardiola, given Foden's overall record in City colours, which reads: played 123, won 100, drawn 10 and lost 13. In matches he has started this season, the English champions are W30 D3 L2 and W17 D3 L5 when Foden has been on the bench or missing, a win percentage drop from 85.7 to 68.

                           *********************

Foden's enhanced standing means he is now less likely to be a victim of the dreaded Guardiola "overthink". This is, of course a disingenuous tag attached to a coach who gets so deeply into his work he has spent press conferences eulogising over the terrifying qualities of Nathan Redmond and Sam Vokes. If he overthinks, he does it every single game, for better and for worse.

However, plenty of City fans will dread an unusual team selection in Porto, such as the 3-5-2 that collapsed in a heap against Lyon in last season's quarter-final. Foden had started in the previous round's second leg against Real Madrid as a false nine and had 14 goal involvements for the season (eight goals, six assists), but looked on as an unused substitute in Lisbon. His blossoming is one of the reasons the City team sheet should be more predictable this time around.

                           *********************

Having led his country to glory in India, Foden graduated to England Under-21 level, where he was similarly dazzling over the course of 15 caps and four goals.

He scored both in a 2-0 win over Kosovo and curled in a wonderful free-kick in Albania. The Young Lions flopped badly at Under-21 Euro 2019, but Foden's deft solo goal in a 2-1 defeat to France marked a rare high point.

                           *********************

Only Gundogan has managed more than Foden's 16 in a season where City have shared the goals around. Although plenty would back him should a key opportunity fall his way at Estadio do Dragao, there is room to become more clinical.

In terms of expected goals overperformance among City players to have scored 10 or more times this season, Foden is in a good place, over-performing his xG of 10.88 at a similar rate to Gundogan (17 goals, xG 11.69).

A shot conversion rate of 16.2 puts him below Gundogan, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus within this group of players, while he has scored seven and missed eight big chances (46.7 per cent).

                           *********************

Foden's early breakthrough at City meant he achieved a cluster of age-related records. At 17 years and 283 days, he became the youngest English player to feature in a Champions League knockout match when Guardiola shuffled his pack thanks to a 4-0 first-leg advantage over Basel in the 2017-18 round of 16.

The next season, the cherished moment of Foden's first senior goal arrived, at the start of one of those triumphant EFL Cup campaigns against Oxford United. By now 18 years and 120 days, he was the first City player to score for the club having been born since the turn of the millennium.

                           *********************

When the following season's competition concluded, at a full Wembley a couple of weeks before the pandemic took hold of the UK, Foden was a surprise starter and man of the match at 19 in a 2-1 win over Villa.

Along with an assist for Sergio Aguero's goal, he completed 90 per cent of his 41 passes in the opposition half, made 70 touches overall and won seven out of 10 duels.

He was all over the contest and his prominence has increased exponentially since that point. This February, when City roared to a 4-1 win at Liverpool – their first away win in the fixture since 2003 – Foden bent the game to his will and crowned victory with a blistering individual strike. At 20 years and 255 days, he was the youngest player to score and assist in a Premier League game against Liverpool at Anfield.

                           *********************

And now, to another big game. The biggest.

The day after he turns 21, Foden will take all of this prodigious talent and elite experience and try to build upon it in pursuit of European glory. And we all get to watch.

"You are lucky guys, believe me."

At long last, Manchester City have made it to the Champions League final – ever since their 2008 takeover, becoming the major force in Europe has been one of their main targets.

Achieving that goal is finally within their grasp, with Saturday's showpiece being the club’s first final in the competition.

For all the success during Sheikh Mansour's ownership, the Champions League has been the missing piece of the puzzle, a situation City set out to remedy in 2016 when they hired Pep Guardiola.

It is no surprise the Catalan coach has been the man to get them to the edge of glory, such is his pedigree and reputation, though it may have taken a little longer than some expected.

However, success in Porto on Saturday is by no means a foregone conclusion, with Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea standing in their way.

Ahead of the biggest match in European football, Stats Perform looks at the key Opta data…

The Coaches

Much of the focus until now has been centred around the two coaches, whose situations are rather different.

While Guardiola may be taking charge of Champions League final newcomers, he of course has a stellar reputation in the competition and will become only the third manager to win it three times if City prevail – the others being Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane.

Tuchel, on the other hand, was here just last year in charge of Paris Saint-Germain, who were defeated in the final by Bayern Munich. He is already the first coach to reach successive Champions League/European Cup finals with different teams, while only Marcello Lippi and Hector Cuper have lost two in a row.

Nevertheless, Guardiola has lost more matches to Chelsea in all competitions across his managerial (seven) than any other club, including the past two.

The Records

City have already made history by getting this far, with this their first European final in 51 years since beating Gornik Zabrze 2-1 in the 1970 Cup Winners' Cup final – it's the longest gap between finals for a team, beating the 41 years that Sporting CP chalked up between 1964 and 2005.

Another record in sight for City is Real Madrid's benchmark of 12 wins in a single Champions League campaign, with Guardiola's side on 11. However, Los Blancos' haul is a little less impressive when you consider their 12 victories came from 17 matches – City have played 13 so far.

Although both clubs have become European mainstays this century, they have only actually played each other outside of domestic football once, meeting in the two-legged 1970-71 Cup Winners' Cup semi-final when Chelsea won 2-0 on aggregate.

City's regularity in this competition has been impressive, though as previously mentioned it will be their first final, which means it will be the third year running that a new team contests the main event, following on from Tottenham and PSG – this last occurred from 1986 to 1988 when Steaua Bucharest, Porto and PSV contested finals.

The Star Names

As with any Champions League final, there will be an impressive array of quality on show, including Kevin De Bruyne, a former Chelsea player.

Along with Riyad Mahrez, the Belgian has scored in the quarter-final and semi-final this season. If they both net in the final, they will be the first duo to accomplish the impressive hat-trick since Real Madrid greats Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas in 1959-60.

Phil Foden's career trajectory already suggests this will not be his last European final, and if he is named in the starting XI he will be the third-youngest Englishman (21 years, one day) to start a Champions League decider after Owen Hargreaves (20y 123d) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (19y 231d in 2018 and 20y 237d in 2019).

Foden is also on the second-longest unbeaten run in Champions League history at 21 matches, a streak that stretches back to a defeat to Basel in March 2018.

And the longest unbeaten run in Champion League belongs to? That's right, another City player: Bernardo Silva. He hasn't lost in the competition since September 2018, a sequence of 26 appearances.

Sergio Aguero will play his final match for City should he make an appearance, and few would bet against that given he has scored 13 times against Chelsea, a record he has only bettered against Newcastle United.

Standing in City's way, however, will be Edouard Mendy – Chelsea hope. The Senegal international suffered a knock against Aston Villa and the Blues will be desperate for him to be make it given he has kept eight clean sheets in Europe this term. Only Santi Canizares and Keylor Navas have ever kept nine in a single campaign.

Another man who has been key to Chelsea's defensive solidity this term, particularly since Tuchel took over, is Thiago Silva. The Brazilian is set to become only the fifth player to feature in consecutive finals with different teams.

The others? Marcel Desailly (1993 Marseille, 1994 Milan), Paulo Sousa (1996 Juventus, 1997 Borussia Dortmund), Samuel Eto'o (2009 Barcelona, 2010 Inter Milan) and Alvaro Morata (2014 Real Madrid, 2015 Juventus) – now there is a quiz question for you.

Is David de Gea's time at Manchester United coming to an end?

De Gea has spent a decade with the Red Devils but his form has been scrutinised in recent years.

A swap involving Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak could solve United's problems.

 

TOP STORY – DE GEA OUT, OBLAK IN?

Manchester United are lining up a swap deal involving star goalkeeper David de Gea and Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak, according to The Sun.

De Gea's future has been uncertain since Dean Henderson signed a long-term contract extension at United, who remain uncertain about the pair.

Spain international De Gea joined United from Atletico in 2011 and the Red Devils are prepared to offer the LaLiga giants a reunion in exchange for star Oblak.

 

ROUND-UP

- TV3 reports Barcelona have offered Lionel Messi a new contract. Messi's current deal is due to expire on June 30 and the superstar captain has been linked with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

Saul Niguez is adamant he wants to leave LaLiga champions Atletico and Juventus lead the race to sign the Spaniard, claims Marca. United – long-term admirers – Bayern Munich and PSG are also interested.

- PSG head coach Mauricio Pochettino is the favourite to replace Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, says the front page of Friday's Mundo Deportivo. Zidane has announced his departure. Former Inter boss Antonio Conte, Castilla coach and club great Raul and Xabi Alonso – currently in charge of Real Sociedad's reserve side – are also on the list. Pochettino has also been linked with a sensational return to Tottenham.

Barca have held talks regarding goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, according to Fabrizio Romano. Donnarumma's Milan contract is due to expire and his departure is already confirmed. After talking with agent Mino Raiola, Barca are set to decide whether to sign Donnarumma, who has also been linked with Juve and United.

- Premier League champions City are looking to smash their transfer record to bring in £100million-rated Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish, reports the Daily Mail. City are also interested in Tottenham's Harry Kane – a target for rivals United, Chelsea, Madrid and Barca.

- The Telegraph says United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is set to sign a new three-year contract in Manchester. Solskjaer guided United to a second-placed finish in the Premier League, while the club were stunned by Villarreal in the Europa League final this season.

Barca are close to completing free transfers for Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and Lyon star Memphis Depay, according to Mundo Deportivo. Ronald Koeman's men are also eyeing City's free agent pair Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia.

- FootMercato reports PSG have made an approach for star Milan full-back Theo Hernandez.

Chelsea and Tottenham both have strong interest in Borussia Monchengladbach attacker Jonas Hofmann, claims Sport1.

Manchester City star Raheem Sterling is confident of Champions League success, insisting "the only thing that can stop us are ourselves".

Premier League champions City and rivals Chelsea will meet in an all-English final in Porto, Portugal on Saturday.

City will contest their first Champions League final, while it is 51 years since the club's last major European decider, having won the 1970 Cup Winners' Cup – breaking the record for the longest gap between finals for a team, eclipsing Sporting CP's 41-year drought.

Pep Guardiola's City have won 11 Champions League matches this season and victory over Chelsea would see them equal the all-time record of 12 by Real Madrid in 2001-02, although the Spanish giants played 17 matches that campaign, compared to City's 13 this season.

"It is now about focusing on winning that trophy," Sterling said. "The only thing that can stop us are ourselves, if I am honest.

"We have played them [Chelsea] twice [under head coach Thomas Tuchel] and lost twice, but this is a Champions League final.

"On the day, things are a lot different. You go into it with a clean mindset. Those games that happened against them in recent times go out the window.

"It is a game where I expect a difficult test, but at the same time I expect us to pull through.

"I expect a physically demanding game. Chelsea is a strong a team who have a lot of physically strong players."

City are the ninth different English team to reach a European Cup/Champions League final, at least three more than any other nation (Germany and Italy, six).

However, only one of the last 10 teams competing in their maiden final have won, with Borussia Dortmund 3-1 victors against Juventus in 1997. The last English outfit to win their first final was Aston Villa in 1982 against Bayern Munich.

Since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan's takeover in 2008, City have claimed five Premier League titles, including three of the past four in England.

However, City's hierarchy have long craved European glory.

"It is a club that, since I have come here, the way they want us to go is to win the Premier League and Champions League," England international Sterling said.

"It is a massive achievement to get there, but I know that the club won't just be happy to get there. Hopefully we can do it, we can win at the weekend and make history at this club.

"I think the camp is pretty relaxed. Being in finals before with this football club, that only gives you that experience of going into a final.

"Of course, it is the Champions League final, but at the same time we are footballers and we have to not let the occasion get to us and play our football."

Stade Michel d'Ornano in Caen is a long way from Porto's Estadio do Dragao. To be precise, it's 1,573 kilometers in the unlikely event you ever have the urge to drive across Portugal and Spain, then all the way up to Normandy in northern France.

In terms of staging posts within a career, second tier French football in 2013-14 and the 2021 Champions League final are a million miles apart. But this is the journey Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante have taken, almost stride for stride, as they wait to contest the European club game's greatest prize.

A look at Ligue 2's YouTube highlights from the first time the Manchester City winger and Chelsea midfielder faced one another on September 27, 2013, when Caen hosted Le Havre, reveals a few very familiar traits.

Kante can be seen bustling around with intent from the right of Caen's midfield three, although three-minute condensed match clips are obviously not the best medium for showcasing his qualities.

Mahrez created Le Havre's best first-half chance with a cute throughball, almost snuck in a cheeky free-kick at the near post and then did that first touch. You know the one – kills a cross-field ball stone dead with the outside of his left boot, twists the defender inside out and gets a shot off.

That attempt was saved, however, and a Faycal Fajr penalty after Le Havre's Zargo Toure was sent off gave Caen a 1-0 win. They would go on to secure promotion, beginning a remarkable mid-decade run of success for Kante, irrespective of which team he happened to be representing.

But Mahrez was the first to escape Ligue 2, joining Leicester City midway through the campaign and similarly earning promotion from the Championship.

After an improbable escape from relegation in 2014-15, Leicester parted company with manager Nigel Pearson and appointed Claudio Ranieri. Kante was one of his close-season signings, with Caen pocketing £5.6m, and the rest is gloriously improbable history.

That was a hefty outlay compared to the £400,000 Leicester sent Le Havre's way for Mahrez, who finished the Foxes' Premier League-winning campaign in 2015-16 with 17 goals, 11 assists and the PFA Players' Player of the Year award.

 

While the Algeria winger won the approval of his fellow professionals and Jamie Vardy's astonishing rise from non-league to the top of the English game earned him the FWA Footballer of the Year prize, the biggest revelation was arguably Kante.

"This player Kante, he was running so hard that I thought he must have a pack of batteries hidden in his shorts," Ranieri told the Players' Tribune.

"I tell him, 'One day, I'm going to see you cross the ball and then finish the cross with a header yourself!'."

A run to the final of Euro 2016 followed with France, and Kante was the one jewel of the Leicester triumph to depart in its immediate afterglow. He joined Chelsea for £32m, helped to drive Antonio Conte's men to the Premier League title and cleaned up at the end of season awards.

Twelve months later, he was a world champion as France romped to glory at Russia 2018. Kante was football's sure thing, at club or international level. And yet, in hindsight, the full palate of his qualities were perhaps a touch under-appreciated.

All eulogies came back to that insatiable work-rate, that battery pack in the shorts. Maurizio Sarri's installation as Antonio Conte's successor at Stamford Bridge, bringing with him his cerebral deep-lying playmaker Jorginho, would mean a change of pace.

In his two seasons under Conte, Kante made 127 and 113 tackles. This was down from terrifyingly relentless 175 (winning 71.4 per cent – his best success rate in the Premier League) in that season at Leicester, which does much to explain how his reputation was established and remained in the popular imagination.

 

In 2018-19, his tackles number fell to 74 and it has never returned to previous levels under Frank Lampard or Thomas Tuchel. But as a shuttling midfield presence under Sarri, his 73 touches in the opposition box that season were more than in his entire Premier League career up until that point, with four goals and four assists his reward.

Where some feared Jorginho's arrival would shove Kante out of his preferred position, they now operate very effectively in tandem and will probably do so against City. For all that the former Napoli man is charged with setting the tempo, Kante remains tidily efficient in possession. His pass completion in every season at the Bridge tracks between 85 and 89 per cent.

The 30-year-old stamped his presence all over the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid and was named man of the match for both legs in a 3-1 aggregate triumph. During the second encounter in London, Kante made five interceptions – only bettered by six from Jorginho – but also made more passes in the opposition half (25) and created more chances (three) than any other Chelsea player.

This week in Porto, UEFA is displaying the Champions League trophy in a public square opposite Jardim de Joao Chagas. The shimmering prize is flanked by a City shirt bearing Kevin De Bruyne's name and number. The Chelsea jersey has Kante on the back. He is unquestionably one of the main attractions and keys to victory this weekend.

The same can be said for Mahrez, although his adjustment to life in Manchester was not as seamless as Kante's in England's capital.

As his old team-mate adapted to Sarri, Mahrez struggled to take on board Guardiola's demands having got the £60m move he had long craved. However, his 2019-20 returns showed improvements, with 11 Premier League goals and nine assists – up from seven and four a year earlier. Waiting patiently on the right-wing for his team-mates to disrupt opponents and leave him with one-on-one duels was different to the freedom he enjoyed at Leicester but starting to pay dividends.

He is now one of Guardiola's go-to men, came second behind Ruben Dias in City's player of the year poll and is a scorer of heavy goals.

When the Champions League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund was on the line, 2-2 on aggregate with his team heading out on away goals at Signal Iduna Park, Mahrez slammed home a high-pressure penalty after an interminable VAR delay. He went on to score a goal in each leg as Paris Saint-Germain were swept aside 4-1 on aggregate, including the winner through a disintegrating defensive wall at the Parc des Princes.

"Riyad always was at a good level," Guardiola said earlier this month. "Maybe at the beginning he didn’t play much in the first season because we already had a structure with Leroy [Sane] and the other ones, but step by step he regained his position.

"Lately he has been playing really good and hopefully he can maintain this level."

At the other end of the square where Kante's shirt stands alongside the trophy he hopes to lift this weekend, UEFA have installed a merchandise stall where a shirt to commemorate the all-English final will set you back €60.

That amounts to fleecing that could not be further away from the value for money Leicester enjoyed when they plucked Mahrez and Kante from France and set them on the path to Porto.

This season's Manchester City side could be remembered as "one of the best teams ever" if they deliver Champions League success in style against Chelsea on Saturday.

City great Francis Lee told Stats Perform he believes Pep Guardiola's men could "hit the jackpot" in Porto.

The club Lee represented between 1967 and 1974 – winning four major honours, including the 1970 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup – have never taken home Europe's top prize.

Indeed, this is City's first Champions League final, becoming the ninth English team to reach this stage.

The gap of 51 years to that Cup Winners' Cup triumph is the biggest ever between European deciders, longer than Sporting CP's barren 41 years between the 1964 Cup Winners' Cup and 2005 UEFA Cup finals.

But victory against domestic rivals Chelsea would complete a City treble following success in the Premier League and EFL Cup.

Lee was asked by Stats Perform how that might compare to rivals Manchester United's three trophies in 1999.

"Well, you can't say that one team is better than any other team," he said. "You can only say in the way they win the game, the style they play the game, and the contribution to all the players in the team.

"And if it's a scrappy 1-0, 2-1 win...

"It just depends. It depends on the day, with the fluidity of the City team. If they hit the jackpot, you could be talking about one of the best teams ever."

Guardiola has lost more games against Chelsea (seven) than any other opponent in his coaching career, including the past two in a row.

Yet the Blues have not won three straight matches against City since a run of eight victories between 2005 and 2009, and Lee is not concerned by their recent meetings.

"It's going to be difficult but I think it'll be a different result," he said.

"I think that we played Chelsea before [these two games] and have always done pretty well against them.

"It's been the last two games, and there was nothing in it anyway; it was here and there.

"And if you have a City squad, a full squad, bubbling and ready to go, they're going to be very, very difficult to beat."

Dani Alves regrets turning down the chance to play under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

The Brazil international opted to join Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 after leaving Juventus following a one-year spell in Italy.

He looks back fondly at his fine spell with PSG that led to six trophies including two Ligue 1 titles.

But Alves, who won two of his three Champions League crowns under Guardiola at Barcelona, now looks back and wishes he had taken a chance to work with the Catalan coach once more.

Alves, 38, told SporTV: "I regret not going to Manchester City to work with Guardiola again.

"When you are with people like him [Guardiola], who always finds a way out, it adds a lot to you. My regret was not having gone to work with him again.

"But not [regret] for PSG, because the story that I lived at PSG was incredible."

After spending two years with PSG, Alves is back in Brazil playing for Sao Paulo, who he joined in 2019.

City, meanwhile, face Chelsea on Saturday as they seek their first Champions League title.

Guardiola's side are the ninth different English team to reach a European Cup or Champions League final, at least three more than any other nation (Germany and Italy have six).

However, only one of the last 10 teams competing in their first final have won the competition (Borussia Dortmund against Juventus in 1997).

The last English team to win in their first final were Aston Villa in 1982 against Bayern Munich.

Trent Alexander-Arnold received praise to go with his recall from Gareth Southgate as the England boss hedged his bets for Euro 2020 by naming a 33-man provisional squad.

The Liverpool right-back could yet face exclusion agony when Southgate trims his list to 26 next week, but for now Alexander-Arnold is back in the England picture.

Once seen as a player who would hold down the right full-back berth for England for years to come, the 22-year-old was dramatically dropped from Southgate's squad in March, with the head coach questioning his recent level of performance at club level.

Atletico Madrid's Kieran Trippier and Manchester City's Kyle Walker – both title winners with their clubs this season – look to be ahead of Alexander-Arnold, who may be battling Chelsea's Reece James for a place in the final group.

After a late-season surge to a Champions League place by Liverpool, helped by an improved Alexander-Arnold, the England head coach was left with a quandary.

"I could easily get drawn into individuals who might be in the 26, get myself in a mess," said Southgate in a news conference following his squad announcement.

"People feel I have an obsession with right-backs. I see four good footballers. Trippier can play right-back or left-back, Trent can play right-back, wing-back. I think he can play in midfield.

"In the last few days I've seen Reece James play right in a three, at wing-back, in midfield. We're going to a tournament and those sorts of flexible players that can fulfill different roles but are good footballers are going to be hugely important for us.

"We don't know how it will play out with injuries, what our best systems will be with people available, we've got too many question marks.

"That will all become far clearer. We know what we'd like to do, we've got good contingencies in place."

Southgate selected an expanded squad because of injury worries over the likes of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson, the captains of Manchester United and Liverpool. By including Alexander-Arnold, Southgate at least delays any criticism over his exclusion, and it may be that a space opens up for the attack-minded defender.

Alexander-Arnold is a slightly different flavour of defender to Southgate's other options, as a player who had 13 assists in Liverpool's 2019-20 title-winning campaign and seven in the league season just ended.

James has just two Premier League assists in 2020-21 and Walker only one, with the City defender creating just eight chances compared to the 77 set up by Alexander-Arnold. Trippier assisted on six goals in LaLiga, however.

 

James, Walker and Trippier are all well ahead of Alexander-Arnold in terms of dribble and tackle success rates, and Southgate can be expected to be aware of such factors.

Alexander-Arnold's 2020-21 league dribble success rate stood at just 47.06 per cent, with Walker posting 53.33 per cent, James 65.38 per cent and Trippier 76 per cent.

In tackling success, Alexander-Arnold's 58.93 per cent success rate was beaten by his three right-back rivals, who each scored at least 63 per cent, led by 65.52 per cent by Walker.

The Liverpool man's attempted dribbles may at times have been high-tariff manoeuvres, given he regularly plays high up the field, but Alexander-Arnold loses possession at a rate that could give England problems. He gave up the ball 25.49 times on average per 90 minutes in 2020-21 league action, compared to 14.83 by James, 16.35 by Trippier and a mere 13.32 by Walker.

As Southgate toys with that big call, he must also decide whether Mason Greenwood, United's 19-year-old forward, makes the cut.

Greenwood scored just seven Premier League goals at one every 261 minutes in 2020-21 but, after a strong end to the campaign, he has again caught the eye of England's manager, who sent him home along with Phil Foden at the start of the season after a breach of COVID-19 protocol while on national team duty in Iceland.

"In terms of the past it is absolutely the past," Southgate said. "Young people make mistakes, we move on from it, the same with Phil [Foden].

"He's an absolutely outstanding finisher, no question about that."

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