Reigning Premier League champions City took a major step toward becoming European champions for the first time by eliminating Real Madrid 5-1 on aggregate in Wednesday’s dominant 4-0 win. That result was also a huge statement in their quest to become only the second English club to win the treble (domestic league, domestic cup, Champions League), after Manchester United in 1999.
Inter, meanwhile, made a statement of their own by beating local rivals AC Milan 1-0 on Tuesday to win their semifinal 3-0 on aggregate and reach their first Champions League final since 2010, when they lifted the trophy for a third time as part of their own treble.
But who will win in the Turkish city of Istanbul three-and-a-half weeks from now? Will City make up for their loss in the final two years ago and finally become champions of Europe, or will Inter upset the odds and claim the continental crown for the fourth time in their history?
We asked ESPN writers Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens and Rob Dawson for their early thoughts ahead of the final and their predictions on which team will win it all.
Ogden: Man City absolutely tore Real Madrid apart
Mark Ogden reacts to Manchester City’s sensational 4-0 win over Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal.
Who has been your player of the tournament so far, and why?
Marcotti: Erling Haaland. A reluctant choice, since, frankly, if he weren’t there City would probably still be in the final. But that applies to all the other City guys too. This is a team built on the collective so, if any standout performer doesn’t produce, then there are others to step in. Actually Inter are very much based on the collective too, it’s just that pound-for-pound they have a lot less quality.
I know that Haaland didn’t do much at the Bernabeu and, arguably, missed a hat trick of chances in the second leg at the Etihad. But he’s the Champions League top scorer with 12 goals (for the second time already in his young career,) and he’s genuinely different to what City would otherwise offer, giving them a different dimension. I don’t have strong feelings on this one, but if you force me to choose I’ll choose him. Nobody at City is irreplaceable (except maybe coach Pep Guardiola) but Haaland — and midfielder Rodri — are less replaceable than any of the other guys.
Ogden: Kevin De Bruyne, Let’s put the stats to one side and focus on a player who is about more than mere numbers to his team. De Bruyne is the heartbeat of Guardiola’s Manchester City side and he has produced key moments to get his team to the final. His goal in the semifinal first leg against Real Madrid hauled City level and ensured a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu. That provided the platform for the 4-0 demolition job in the return fixture at the Etihad, in which De Bruyne set the ball rolling for hosts with the pass for Bernardo Silva‘s opening goal.
While goal scorers tend to win the biggest games, success is built in midfield and that has been a thread of Champions League success through the ages. From Roy Keane driving Manchester United to the final in 1999 (which he missed through suspension), Steven Gerrard inspiring Liverpool to glory in 2005 and Luka Modric (Real Madrid) and Xavi (Barcelona) on more than one occasion for their teams, Champions Leagues are won by dominant midfielders. De Bruyne is that guy for Manchester City and he is peaking at the perfect time in this season’s competition.
Laurens: John Stones. To watch him play as a hybrid centre-back and central midfielder against Bayern Munich and Real Madrid is just incredible. What Guardiola has done with him, how he has transformed his game is wonderful. Of course, he still loses the ball at times and his touch can be a bit heavy but he brings so much to this team. He covers so much ground and is a weapon that opponents haven’t been able to work out yet. City are a better team with Stones in this new role.
Dawson: Ruben Dias. City have always scored goals in Champions League knockout games, but the difference this year is how well they’ve defended. In six knockout matches this season they’ve only conceded three times while keeping clean sheets at home against RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Dias doesn’t get the attention that John Stones attracts because he’s not the one pushing into midfield with the ball at his feet, but he’s the glue that holds it all together. He’s quick, strong, good on the ball and physical when he needs to be and he’s been outstanding at the business end of this season’s Champions League. In two games against Karim Benzema, the France striker — who won the Ballon d’Or last year for driving Madrid past top opponents like City to win the Champions League — barely got a sniff at goal.
How will Inter’s attack line up against Man City in UCL final?
Alejandro Moreno and Craig Burley explain why Simone Inzaghi should start Lautaro Martinez and Edin Dzeko in the UCL final.
Which duel do you think will be the most decisive in the final, and why?
Ogden: This is not really a duel, but more a dilemma for City to solve if Inter coach Simone Inzaghi continues with his front two of Lautaro Martinez and either Edin Dzeko or Romelu Lukaku. It is a rarity in the modern game for a top team to operate with two outright forwards and it will be a different challenge for City’s defenders to overcome. They will be accustomed to one marking and one being spare, but Inter won’t give them that luxury if Inzaghi sticks with his favoured approach. He may opt to be more pragmatic by playing with one forward and packing the midfield, but it seems unlikely, so it will be intriguing to see how Guardiola handles the threat and which defenders he selects to play at centre-back. They will have to deal with Martinez’s movement and mobility and the more physical threat of former City striker Dzeko or Lukaku, so Guardiola’s selection will be key.
Laurens: We will have many great match-ups in the final, but the one with the best story will be Francesco Acerbi against Haaland. Inter centre-back Acerbi is 35, his career is behind him. No one expected him to reach this kind of level and play in a Champions League final, even before he underwent chemotherapy for testicular cancer in 2014. Yet, here he is, preparing to face Haaland, a goal-scoring phenomenon 13 years his junior who will want to make up for his misses against Real Madrid. Acerbi will be physical like Antonio Rudiger but is also smart like David Alaba. The Inter back five will be a challenge for Haaland; whoever wins that battle will win the game.
Dawson: The key duel might end up being between Pep Guardiola and his own mind. He joked before the semifinal second leg against Real Madrid that he wouldn’t “overthink” his tactical plan after being accused of just that in big Champions League ties in the past. City fans will still remember that he inexplicably started the 2021 Champions League final against Chelsea without a holding midfielder, and many of the supporters travelling to Istanbul will not feel comfortable about their chances until they have seen the teamsheet. Very few Inter players would make it into a combined XI which tells you that, on paper, City are the better side man-for-man. There is no reason for Guardiola to deviate too much from the team which thrashed Real Madrid, but then there was no reason to make such a big change for that loss against Chelsea, either.
Marcotti: City vs. Inter in transition. We know the script for the final will involve City having the bulk of possession. And we know that the longer they play in Inter’s half, the likelier they will create chances and, eventually, score. That’s why it’s critical that, when Inter do turn the ball over, they manage to retain possession for at least a few minutes or, find the “out ball” to Lautaro or Lukaku. City did a fantastic job of this against Real Madrid, who have better passers to break the press and, in Vinicius Junior, a better target for them than Inter do. If they can do it again in Istanbul, it won’t be much of a game. But if Inter can take the sting out of the press by keeping the ball or stretching them with long passes, forcing City into the tactical foul, if they can slow the pace of the game, then it could be a key to their success. One of the few keys maybe, but a key nonetheless.
Guardiola promises not to overthink his tactics vs. Real Madrid
Pep Guardiola speaks ahead of Man City’s Champions League semifinal second leg against Real Madrid.
Give us one good reason why Inter can overcome the odds and beat City in the final
Laurens: I expect Inter to cause City problems by harking back to the principals on which La Grande Inter won back-to-back European Cups in the 1960s under coach Helenio Herrera. By that I mean slow the game down, be difficult to break down, play quite deep and be aggressive. Set pieces could be key and the form of players like Martinez and Nicolo Barella, plus what Lukaku can bring, could be decisive for Inter. Tactically, Inzaghi has been excellent in the Champions League this season and I expect him to put up a tactical plan which will be hard for Pep to counter. The only way this Inter side can win the final is by producing a tactical masterclass like Chelsea did under Thomas Tuchel back in 2021. There are similarities between that Chelsea and this Inter, so the Italians could repeat the trick.
Dawson: It’s a one-off game. City would be far too strong over two legs, but over 90 minutes (and possibly another 30 of extra time and a penalty shootout after that) anything can happen. City started the 2021 final against Chelsea as favourites but were beaten 1-0 in a tight game, and that will give Inter hope that they can do something similar. The build-up will be dominated by City and talk of a possible treble but Inter have some very good players. It’s easy to forget that they came through a group that included Bayern Munich and Barcelona, so it’s not as if they have fluked their way to the final — even if their route through the knockout phase was kinder than City’s. Guardiola’s side will be fancied to lift the trophy but in a high-pressure final, you never know.
Marcotti: As I mentioned, if they can transition out of pressure either with spells of possession or counterattacks then it’s a big plus. It can frustrate City and the longer they keep a clean sheet, the more Inter will grow in confidence. The other factor is set pieces. Inter have excellent free-kick takers in Hakan Calhanoglou, Dzeko and Lautaro. And, on corner kicks and free kicks, they have plenty of size with the likes of Acerbi, Alessandro Bastoni, Dzeko and Lukaku. Plus they have a goalkeeper who can get hot like Andre Onana and, on the day, be a difference maker. It’s one game, anything can happen. City are overwhelming favourites, but let’s not forget they failed to win eight of 35 Premier League games that they have played so far this season. There’s a reason for that; the best team doesn’t always win.
Ogden: Belief. Inter have hit a winning streak in recent weeks and they have beaten neighbours AC Milan twice in their eight-game winning run. So confidence will be high and that will enable them to face City with the knowledge that their players are in form and Inzaghi’s game-plan is working. Inter’s experience will feed into that belief. This is a seasoned team of proven performers who won’t be intimidated by the prospect of facing City, and they won’t be cowed into playing a different game to take them. They are Inter Milan, a club with a great history and huge fanbase, and that brings an assurance and self-confidence. City are by far the better team, but Inter can pull it off if everything works in their favour.
Win the UCL or win the World Cup? Bernardo Silva plays You Have To Answer
Bernardo Silva picks between Portuguese icons and Manchester City teammates in You Have To Answer.
Give us your predictions for what the score will be in the final, and why
Dawson: City will win and relatively comfortably. They’ve hit form at just the right time and the way they blitzed Real Madrid is evidence of a team playing with swagger and confidence and it will be very hard to stop them winning the treble if that is still on the cards. In the last couple of months, City have put four goals past Arsenal, Liverpool and Real Madrid and three past Bayern Munich. Guardiola’s team are controlling games and scoring goals in abundance. They will need to have an off night if Inter are to win and there has been very little over the last 27 games to suggest that might happen. City to win 3-0.
Marcotti: Logic says City because they are more talented, more athletic, fresher, more of a unit (though Inter have become one this season), are more accustomed to these sorts of games and have a better manager. There is no pretending they’re anything but overwhelming favourites. So I’m going for a 2-0 City win.
Ogden: Like Gab, my head says City will win and win well. They have just dismantled Real Madrid in a 4-0 rout and one thing about Guardiola’s team is that they neither show mercy nor take their foot off the pedal. So while I expect a 3-0 City win, I could still see a 1-0 Inter win if the Nerrazzuri score first. And let’s not forget what happened the last time the Champions League final was held in Istanbul; Liverpool stunned the football world by fighting back from 3-0 down to beat Carlo Ancelotti’s great AC Milan team in 2005, so maybe Inter can use that as a motivation and hope they can achieve their own Miracle of Istanbul.
Laurens: There is no way City are letting this one go. They would have learned a lot from the defeat against Chelsea two years ago, they are a better team and they have momentum and confidence. I expect a tough game against a low Inter block but a moment of magic from De Bruyne, Haaland or Bernardo Silva will win it 1-0 for City.
Champions League final betting odds (via Caesars Sportsbook)
To win the final
Manchester City: -500
Inter Milan: +320