Come August 11, 2021, the UEFA Super Cup – the traditional curtain-raiser for Europe’s continental club competitions – will be contested between Chelsea and Manchester United in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Yes, you read that right.
Both teams have effectively sealed their places in the Final of their respective competitions (there is little chance of Roma overturning a 6-2 deficit from their semi-final first leg demolition at Old Trafford).
And yet, I’m handing in my prediction early. Allow me to explain why.
Why Chelsea will beat Manchester City
First, there is historical precedent. The UEFA Champions League is often cruel to first-time finalists.
The last time a first-time finalist won the competition was back in 1996/97, when Borussia Dortmund stunned Juventus in Munich. Since then, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco, Arsenal, Chelsea (2007/08) and Tottenham have all failed on their first try in the competition’s showpiece.
There seems to be a pattern: for the newbie, the first go is a learning experience that imparts crucial wisdom, with the more experienced side ultimately claiming victory.
Second (and more importantly), there is the tactical element to the game. In summary, Pep Guardiola’s false nine system does not have the functionality to overcome Thomas Tuchel’s defensive framework.
The German’s arrival has heralded a turnaround for the Blues, underpinned by a stingy defense that has turned clean sheets into a Robert Ryman-style art form.
That back three, marshaled by Thiago Silva, is the platform on which everything else is built, and has posed a riddle that very few teams in Europe, never mind England, have been able to solve.
Manchester City got a firsthand experience of just how difficult it is to penetrate this Chelsea side when both teams faced off in the FA Cup semi-final some weeks back, and no doubt Guardiola will be scratching his gleaming dome in search of a solution.
The trouble is: I’m not exactly sure he has one within the limits of what his squad is capable of.
Between Man City and Chelsea
In comparative terms, this City side is the least dominant of his teams. While they have some outstanding individual talent, they lack a true force of nature in the mold of Lionel Messi or Robert Lewandowski to provide incision where it matters.
Whereas in his previous jobs, the talent level was high enough to condition his approach, in Manchester it is the other way around.
Sergio Aguero is no longer what he was, and Gabriel Jesus is not yet what he may never be.
Chelsea has superior defensive and transitional structures, arguably press more cleverly, and have the tools up the pitch to properly exploit Manchester City. In my view, it all points one way.
Why Manchester United Will Win The Europa League
Unlike Chelsea, United’s dance partner is still to be confirmed at the time of writing. However, against either Villarreal or Arenal, the Red Devils will have nothing to fear.
Having had a taste of disappointment at the hands of Sevilla last term, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side seems to have learned a harsh lesson about the importance of taking their chances. It should serve them well in the Final.
In Unai Emery, Villarreal are managed by the competition’s most decorated coach. However, his three triumphs all came with Sevilla, who have since shown they can do bad all by themselves.
Emery, however, stumbled in the showpiece event two years ago, getting embarrassed by Chelsea in Baku.
A wily tactician who tends to overplay his hand, he largely aims to restrict the game and nick it by the odd goal, a strategy which will be tested severely by Solskjaer’s freewheeling United side.
Arsenal, if they make it through, would probably provide an easier challenge: manager Mikel Arteta is considerably less experienced and his team has even less of a defined tactical identity.
While Arteta not losing to Solskajer since taking charge seems notable (and is a handy banter point for some), United did create the greater threat late on in their most recent meeting, an exciting 0-0 at the Emirates in January.
In a one-off match with something big riding on it, the Red Devils’ more fluid attacking style, supported by a solid pairing at the base of midfield, should have the upper hand against both these reactive teams.