Yesterday, at Estadio do Dragao, in Porto, Portugal, the all-English UEFA Champions League final was won by Chelsea, 1-0, over Manchester City, with the 14,110 fans in attendance also watching Spanish referee, Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz, give a masterclass in officiating.
There were three major storylines in the buildup to and the execution of this match. First, the obvious one, that this was a final of the survivors of a brutal pandemic-laced, war-of-attrition season in which rich clubs with multiple stars and top coaching could more easily manage the unprecedented need to navigate the unexpected and continuously reemerging rapids and shoals Covid wrought. The venue change itself served as a stark reminder of the year’s upheaval.
Tuchel’s masterful mid-season take over at Chelsea was a well-known subject and his team’s newfound belief in their destiny showed each time they faced a critical challenge—climbing up the Premiership table into the top zones where future European competition is assured, eliminating Real Madrid in the semifinals of this Champions League, and City in the semifinals of the FA Cup, then losing to Leicester in the FA Cup final but beating them 2-1, May 18th, to ensure what was then thought to be their one clinching chance at competing in next year’s Champions League.
Guardiola’s side had been masterfully managed too, with a rotation (albeit with the right cast) that ensured his top-most players were fresh when most needed—a feat that was the envy of all other major club managers—and a settled philosophy, playing style and execution that saw them inevitably wrap up the Premier League title while also contesting the FA Cup up to the semis and making the Champions League final.
The second storyline was that the two teams had met twice just prior to the final, and in each instance, the supposed underdog, Chelsea, had won (a Premiership 2-1 win, on May 8th, at Etihad Stadium, and an FA Cup semifinal 1-0 win, on April 17th, at Wembley). So, given the Man City 3-1 Premiership victory over Chelsea had occurred in January, it was obvious to City coach, Pep Guardiola, that Chelsea coach, Thomas Tuchel, had figured things out. Thus Pep knew he needed to make some changes if City were to succeed in this final, all-important match-up.
Much was initially made, pre-match, of the absence of tough-tackling Fernandinho in the City midfield, and of the ultra-offensive line-up and style an extra creative player established. But in truth, post-match, it became obvious the tinkering was a minor issue when compared to the impact each team felt from their own psychological states and their key losses mid-game.
Thiago Silva’s groin injury substitution at the 39th was mostly compensated for by Danish defender Andreas Christensen, while City’s loss of their orchestra’s baton-wielder, Kevin de Bruyne (60th), with the match over 35 minutes from its ending, was never counterbalanced by either his substitute Gabriel Jesus or the entrance of Fernandinho himself four minutes later.
On the mental side of the game, Tuchel, as he had all season and most dramatically in the semis against an aging Real Madrid, had convinced his troops now was their time, while Pep, ironically, sent the message to his troops that despite their magnificent season they were not quite set for this match. Thus, a change most City players might have expected and/or understood in fact became one none felt comfortable with, in their hearts or on the pitch—and it showed. Chelsea were the more comfortable side, and as the game progressed, it became clear a single score might just do the trick. Mason Mount’s superb 42nd. minute through ball set German striker, Kai Havertz, on a one-on-one with Ederson, and the stumbling, net-rippling result was all Chelsea needed on the night.
The third storyline, though, was the least mentioned. Simply put, given the state of our game, on and off the pitch, the best possible officiating was called for on this day, and fortunately, the magnificent Spanish referee, Lahoz, was on hand to ensure the match was settled fairly. He did not disappoint.
With an officiating mastery that at times brought back memories of the Italian uber-referee, Pierluigi Collina, Lahoz cajoled, carded, joked, and cared for the players on both sides with a near-fatherly touch that was nonetheless unwaveringly meticulous in its application of the laws of the game. In two memorable instances, his adroit style shone particularly bright.
At the 56th minute, City’s de Bruyne, in the midst of a give-and-go with counter-attacking potential, found himself literally head-to-head with Chelsea’s mask-wearing German defender Antonio Rudiger who had crept up behind him to ensure the play did not progress. The clear, yellow card foul was unfortunately particularly injurious if not meaningfully violent in intent. The unsuspecting de Bruyne got the worst of it and needed to leave the match, his health and Euro 2020 participation in jeopardy.
Lahoz called the foul and immediately stopped play and urgently called for medical assistance. As the players lay on the pitch Lahoz hovered over them ensuring their safety was being addressed. When Rudiger seemed ready to rise, it was Lahoz who helped him up. Immediately upon reaching his full 6’3” standing, Rudiger faced the referee, who had held a card in his hand the entire time he hovered over both players. Lahoz faced the defender, ensured their eyes met, then showed him the yellow card. Rudiger nodded, and the match resumed.
At the 60th minute, a ball shot into the Chelsea box by City hit Reece James’ arm and the City players all clamored for a hand-ball penalty. Lahoz, who had not called any transgression, repeatedly hit his chest and arm in a pantomime of what he saw had taken place. The ball had hit James in the chest and immediately ricocheted onto his arm, a bang-bang contact which was not in James’ physical capacity to avoid and which the rules allowed as a non-hand ball. Replays would show both Lahoz’s perfect positioning to see the play and his correct call. He did not need to explain, but his immediate reaction to do so, and quelch all dissent, while VAR, of course, double-checked the incident, provided one more moment of self-assured officiating which was underlined when the VAR review upheld the call on the pitch.
As the night wore on, Chelsea, the turtle, continued to play their tenacious, at times stumbling, but strong and unassuming game all match long. Meanwhile, City, the rabbit, attempted to play Pep’s new tune for half the match, and their old tune the latter third of the contest. On this night, the brightest’s sparkle never materialized and humble, steady, and unruffled, won