We'll take the plane or bus - Guardiola relaxed as Istanbul Champions League final is placed in flux

By Sports Desk May 07, 2021

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is unconcerned over where the Champions League final will take place amid fresh doubts over whether the showpiece will take place in Istanbul.

City beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 in midweek to close out a 4-1 aggregate triumph and book their place in a maiden Champions League final.

Chelsea ensured it would be an all-English affair as they overcame Real Madrid by the same scoreline on Wednesday at Stamford Bridge to prevail 3-1 on aggregate.

The make-up of the final already led to speculation over whether the match might be moved, given Turkey is currently under lockdown due to spiking COVID-19 rates as the UK loosens restrictions thanks in part to a successful vaccine roll out.

UEFA insisted it was committed to the game remaining at the Ataturk Stadium but the situation became more complicated on Friday when the UK government added Turkey to its travel "red list".

That means anyone travelling to the country – including fans, players and staff from both clubs – must quarantine for 10 days in government-approved hotels upon their return to the UK.

Unless exemptions can be secured for players, this would be particularly problematic given Euro 2020 and the 2021 Copa America start on June 11, 13 days after the Champions League final.

The change in status is effective from May 17, the same day Turkey's own national lockdown is set to end, and will not be reviewed for three weeks, meaning there is no prospect of a change in the UK government stance before the final.

UEFA is in discussions with the Football Association (FA) over the next steps, with Villa Park touted as a potential alternative venue as Wembley is slated to host the Championship play-off final on May 29.

"I'm pretty sure UEFA will decide the best for everyone," Guardiola said, speaking prior to the UK government decision.

"If we go to Istanbul, it will be a pleasure. I think the situation depends on the pandemic there but if they decide to move on or stay here in this country or another place, we'll take the plane or the bus and we will be there."

Stats Perform News understands City will await further guidance from UEFA over the Champions League final venue and will not lobby for the game to be moved to a stadium on home soil.

City host Chelsea on Saturday in a dress rehearsal for the final, knowing victory at the Etihad Stadium will secure a third Premier League crown in four seasons with three games to spare.

However, Guardiola insists that would not be a cue to rest the players who have established themselves as a settled first XI in European matches.

The Catalan's often-repeated mantra of players needing to be in "rhythm" will not be allowed to slide with a defining night on the horizon.

"I want to be honest, the players will not be rested to think about the Champions League final," Guardiola said.

"Now we have a period of six days [between] Chelsea [and the trip to] Newcastle, so now the schedule is a little bit more fresh.

"Now it's time to try to… it's in our hands and we don't depend on other results to win the Premier League as quickly as possible. It won't be easy because of the opponent we have.

"It's not necessary to tell them to be focused on the last game of the season because nobody in the club has been there before apart from Ilkay [Gundogan], who played in the [2013 Champions League] final. The rest, everyone will be so focused to arrive in this final in the best condition possible."

After their trip to St James' Park, City face Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium on May 18 before rounding out their Premier League campaign at home to Everton on May 23.

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  • Magical Messi served Chile pain again as Martinez misfires Magical Messi served Chile pain again as Martinez misfires

    It was a modest record for a player as magnificent as Lionel Messi: three games, two final defeats, one red card, no goals.

    But the Barcelona great's Copa America performances against Chile prior to Monday's curtain-raising clash were not entirely out of keeping with the rest of his Argentina career.

    There have been moments of magic, of course, but just 15 goals across 46 Copa America and World Cup appearances ahead of this game. Meanwhile, not since 2007-08 has Messi fallen short of averaging a goal every two games for Barca, let alone one every three.

    Even Messi himself could not reasonably argue his international displays have come close to the standard set at club level.

    And while World Cup failures will always remain at the forefront of any such discussion – his achievements in contrast to Diego Maradona's one-man show in 1986 – the Copa America has provided its fair share of pain.

    The final defeats to Chile in 2015 and 2016 were among three for Messi and four for Argentina since their 14th and most recent title in 1993.

    Those two in consecutive years both came courtesy of penalty shoot-outs. Messi scored his spot-kick in the first match but missed the following year, setting his side on their way to another sore setback.

    It was fitting then, it seemed, that this latest campaign – surely one of Messi's last – would start against Chile and initially start in much more encouraging fashion.

    Neymar had set the standard against Venezuela the previous day.

    In front of empty, hushed stands that make it impossible to ignore the influence of politics in football – a popular topic of debate in 2021 – the pace was ponderous until the world's most expensive footballer got to work.

    Neymar scored one and created another in a 3-0 Brazil win. Along with five shots, he created seven chances – the most of any Selecao player in a Copa America match since his debut.

    It took 33 minutes, in which the absence of an atmosphere again jarred, but Messi rose to that challenge when presented with a free-kick in a central position, dipped over the wall and beyond the grasp of Claudio Bravo.

    That was one of seven Messi shots and he played four key passes, too. On paper, this ranked alongside Neymar's efforts.

    By full-time, though, it was a frustratingly familiar tale, as the supporting cast proved unable to suitably assist their superstar.

    Messi's excellence has excused a whole generation of Argentina internationals, absolved of blame because their great number 10 should have been able to win major tournaments alone.

    Too many hugely talented players have misfired on the big stage; Lionel Scaloni sent out some past and present examples.

    Lautaro Martinez is supposed to be the face of a young, new team. He had 11 goals in 23 prior internationals and should have added to that tally more than once in Rio de Janeiro.

    The Inter forward failed to hit the target with any of his three attempts and optimistically appealed for a foul following two of them when he inexplicably missed from point-blank range.

    And Martinez's frustration unfortunately came to the fore after 62 minutes when he lunged into an awful challenge on Charles Aranguiz under the nose of the referee and escaped with a booking.

    The 23-year-old's evening might have ended early with a red card. Instead, it was cut short by the introduction of Sergio Aguero.

    Chile had equalised five minutes prior to Martinez's moment of madness, one of a series of rash attempted tackles punished as a VAR review found Nicolas Tagliafico had made contact with Arturo Vidal in the area.

    Vidal took the penalty and Emiliano Martinez turned it onto the crossbar, but Eduardo Vargas was on hand to nod in his 13th Copa America goal – staying three clear of Messi and climbing into the top 10 all-time.

    Aguero followed Angel Di Maria onto the pitch as Argentina sought a response. Both players were not so long ago out of the picture under Scaloni, having previously been part of the Messi-led team that repeatedly came up short.

    In each Chile final, Di Maria started. Aguero was introduced from the bench in one and in the XI for the other.

    As on those occasions, there were no heroics from either on Monday. Di Maria, now 33, had two shots but neither troubled Bravo. Aguero, also 33, was caught offside once.

    Messi will be the story if Argentina do not deliver silverware in the coming weeks, just as he will be should they finally get over the hump.

    But the same problems persist. When Messi's free-kick set the stage, it was Martinez who could not step up, underwhelming again like too many past Argentina attackers.

    If this is to be the tournament in which Messi reaches his promised land, he is going to need some help.

  • Tarkovic praises defence after Slovakia 'neutralise' Lewandowski in shock win Tarkovic praises defence after Slovakia 'neutralise' Lewandowski in shock win

    Stefan Tarkovic praised his Slovakia side for their efforts in "neutralising" Robert Lewandowski during a shock 2-1 Euro 2020 win over Poland.

    Slovakia claimed only their second European Championship victory as an independent nation thanks to Milan Skriniar's 69th-minute winner in St Petersburg on Monday.

    An own goal from Wojciech Szczesny, which followed great work from Robert Mak, gave Slovakia a first-half lead that was cancelled out 32 seconds into the second half by Karol Linetty.

    But Grzegorz Krychowiak's red card turned the game back in Slovakia's favour and Skriniar's third goal in his last four games for Slovakia secured the three points.

    Key to Slovakia's success was Lewandowski's lack of influence. He had the fewest touches of any Poland outfield player in the first half (22) and finished with 39. None of his five shots hit the target, meaning he has still not scored in a major tournament since Euro 2016.

    Asked about how they shut down a striker who broke Gerd Muller's Bundesliga record with 41 goals in the 2020-21 season, Tarkovic told a media conference: "I think the whole team played very well, we prepared for Poland's attack very responsibly and of course Lewandowski plays a decisive role in the final third. 

    "Skriniar did not personally mark Lewandowski, but the duels with him and other players such as Peter Pekarik and Lubomir Satka, I'm really happy they managed to neutralise such a great player as Lewandowski.

    "After this win, there will be even more pressure to make it from the group. For me it wasn't really about the result, it was about showing what we are capable of. We will enjoy this win but tomorrow we are starting to prepare for Sweden.

    "This means a lot for me, I think it means a lot for all the people that have prepared together with us, the coaching staff, everyone around the team. 

    "We spent three weeks together and we had time to focus on the things we wanted to concentrate on. There are still two difficult games for us but what's really good is that the co-operation is working and the players want to show the country of Slovakia and the fans that they want to fight for Slovakia."

  • Germany receive Goretzka boost as Low prepares for tough French test Germany receive Goretzka boost as Low prepares for tough French test

    Joachim Low believes Germany have the right mix in attack to cause France problems as the two heavyweight nations prepare to do battle at Euro 2020.

    Tuesday's huge clash pits the previous two World Cup winners against each other in Munich, with reigning European champions Portugal and Hungary the other nations in Group F.

    France have been boosted by the international return of Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid striker joining Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud - who is five goals shy of Thierry Henry's record of 51 goals for Les Bleus - as attacking options for head coach Didier Deschamps to utilise.

    However, on the eve of the contest, Low has made clear he is not short of talent in his own squad, meaning defenders for both sides will have to be on high alert at all times.

    "It's obvious we also have a lot of qualities in our team, a good balance and the right mix in attack," Low told the media on Monday.

    "We have a lot of quality. Timo Werner, Leroy Sane, these are players who can decide matches. Kai Havertz, Thomas Muller and Serge Gnabry too.

    "I think both attacks are a real threat, you shouldn't let them out of sight.

    "You have to be focused every minute, because all of these players can score and be decisive."

    Leon Goretzka could be involved in his country's opening fixture having trained with his team-mates as he continues his recovery from a torn muscle.

    "It's only Jonas Hofmann who is not available. All other players have joined in with training, Leon as well was with us," Low said when asked for a squad update.

    "I think he [Goretzka] trained four or five sessions with the team, overall he gave a good impression and he doesn't feel anything from his injury.

    "He won't be risked, but I've said to Leon we will talk after our final training session. It's clear that he won't be in the starting XI just because the break he's had is too long.

    "We will talk and take a decision over whether he can be on the bench, maybe give him some minutes. We will talk with the medical department about him too, I just wanted him to participate in training and if something wasn't going well he could tell me."

    For Low, this is the start of his farewell tour with the national team. He will step down once the tournament is over but hopes to be celebrating after his final game in charge.

    "I don't think about it that it's my last tournament, my last matches. I'm just too focused on preparations for this tournament," he said. 

    "I'm focused on this year, maybe in a few weeks, hopefully when we've won the tournament, then I might be sad. But not at the moment, I'm focused on our task here."

    Low's former assistant Hansi Flick will take over after Euro 2020.

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