Amidst the pandemic, this season’s UEFA Champions League has been truly entertaining and an enjoyable finale should be served on Saturday night at the Estadio do Dragao in Porto, Portugal – a venue chosen two weeks ago after the coronavirus prevented an Istanbul showdown.
May 29, 2021 looked a long way when Manchester City and Chelsea secured tickets to the final. Perhaps, the achievements of the pair have been an unlikely one with fans struggling to come to terms. Both teams were not tipped by experts to even reach the semis when the group stage commenced in October last year, but they are the last two standing.
The date is almost due, with the teams having landed in Porto to conclude preparations for the game.
The Champions League is globally accepted. Apart from Europeans who absolutely adore it for obvious reasons, fans from other continents follow the competition diligently. Africa is one and on Saturday, many countries on the continent would be alert to the final.
Three countries, however, will show much interest because their players are likely to be in action.
Algeria, Senegal and Morocco will be represented in the final by Riyad Mahrez, Edouard Mendy and Hakim Ziyech respectively and with all three not on the same side, Africa is guaranteed another Champions League winner’s medal.
In the competition’s 66 years history, Africa has produced 23 winners from 13 different countries.
Zimbabwean Bruce Grobbelaar opened the floodgates in 1984 when he won it with Liverpool, proving instrumental in the final victory against AS Roma.
Algerian great Rabah Madjer followed three years later. Then three-time African best Abedi Pele assisted Olympique Marseille’s winning goal in the 1993 final.
Since then, four Ghanaians – Ibrahim Tanko, Sammy Kuffour, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari – have all picked up winners’ medals, making Ghana the African country with the most winners.
Cameroonian legend Samuel Eto’o is the only player to have won the tournament on three different occasions – twice with Barcelona and one with Inter Milan. He is joined on the long list by compatriots Geremi Njitap and Joel Matip.
Malian Seidou Keïta is the second most successful African, winning it in 2009 and 2011 with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. However, he is not the first from the West African country as Djimi Traore featured in Liverpool’s 2005 Istanbul miracle.
Nigeria has three winners – Finidi George, Nwankwo Kanu and John Mikel Obi. Didier Drogba and Solomon Kalu became the second Ivorians to win the trophy when Chelsea defeated Bayern Munich in 2012. This was after Yaya Toure won the trophy three years prior.
Liverpool’s 6th final victory in 2019 made Mohamed Salah, Naby Keita and Sadio Mane the first winners from Egypt, Guinea and Senegal respectively.
Other winners are Achraf Hakimi (Morocco), McDonald Mariga (Kenya), Benni McCarthy (South Africa).
On Saturday, Mahrez, Mendy and Ziyech will have the opportunity of becoming second-time winners for their respective countries.
All three players played a role in their respective teams’ run to the final. Undoubtedly, Mahrez and Mendy stood out, especially in the semis, with eye-catching performances.
Mahrez stepped up when it mattered most for City. He scored the crucial first goal in Dortmund as City broke their quarter-final curse and then stole the show against last season’s finalists, PSG, as he scored three goals in both legs to help the Cityzens comfortably win the tie.
In total, Mahrez has netted four times and it accounts for 16.67% of his team’s total goals (24). That figure may not look high but compared to the rest of his teammates, it is impressive. He is tied with Spanish winger Ferran Torres for most goals in Champions League this season for City.
The former Leicester City player has proved his creative prowess as well, recording 1.8 key passes per 90.
According to whoscored.com, he is third in shots per game (2.3), third in dribbles per game (1.6), joint second in assists (3) and second in fouls won per game (1.1) in the Manchester City team.
For Mendy, it is no surprise that Chelsea fans rejoiced upon seeing pictures of him training. Chelsea were sweating over Mendy’s fitness after the Senegalese goalkeeper crashed his ribs against the post in the weekend’s defeat to Aston Villa.
The Senegalese has really come a long way and it is fair to say that he has been one of the best goalkeepers in the competition this season.
With 8 clean sheets earned, Mendy leads the way for the golden glove in the Champions League. Some may say that Chelsea were strong defensively, but the next bit easily dispels that notion.
Mendy has faced 32 shots on target and saved 29 of them. This amounts to a 90.6% save, the highest among goalkeepers to have played five or more Champions League games this season.
Ziyech, on the other hand, has not had the impact he hoped, largely due to injuries. But the summer signing from Ajax has registered two goals which represent 9.53% of Chelsea’s total goals (21) scored. One of his goals came in the knockout stage, scoring in the 2-0 second-leg victory against Atletico Madrid in the round of 16.
What is required of them in the final?
Both teams will head out of the tunnel with a similar objective of being crowned champions. Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola will put their best foot forward in terms of personnel, meaning Mendy and Mahrez are expected to start the game. Meanwhile, Ziyech could start from the bench.
Guardiola is likely to field a team without a striker as he has for the most part of the season. If that happens, Mahrez’s clinical abilities would be tested once again. At 30, the Algerian has gone through high tension points in his career having recently played in an Africa Cup of Nations final.
Nine years ago when Chelsea won the Champions League for the first time, it was a two-man show in Munich with Didier Drogba and Petr Cech making the difference. Chelsea fans would love to see Mendy replicate the legendary goalkeeper’s incredible performance in Porto.
Mendy was scouted and brought to Chelsea by Cech, and the Senegalese must repay the faith on the biggest stage. With City expected to dominate attack, Chelsea will need Mendy to be alert at all times. He has already proved he is capable, after his brilliant semi-final second leg performance against Real Madrid.
Ziyech has not had a lot of opportunities under Tuchel but if he does get one on Saturday, it’ll be the perfect platform for him to justify his €40 million tag.
Mahrez, Mendy and Ziyech will be desperate to join the elite list of African Champions League winners on Saturday.
By Enoch Fiifi Forson|3news.com|Ghana