Ken Early: Manchester City win treble as football comes home to the Persian Gulf

Champions League final: Romelu Lukaku came on the pitch seeking salvation, only to plunge back into purgatory

Manchester City 1 Inter Milan 0

At the seventh time of asking, Pep Guardiola has led Manchester City to the Champions League title.

Watched in person for the first time since 2010 by their owner Sheikh Mansour, attending his second-ever match in 15 years of ownership, City edged past a determined but limited Inter to win the Treble and write their names into history.

The victory means that Abu Dhabi as well as Qatar and Saudi Arabia can look back on 22-23 as the season when football came home – to the Persian Gulf.


It was a night when the pressure of expectation seemed to weigh on City, who displayed little of their usual fluency and lost their inspiration, Kevin de Bruyne, to a muscle injury after just half an hour.

But in the 68th minute, a deflected cross by Bernardo Silva wrong-footed the Inter defence, the ball rolling invitingly into the path of Rodri, following up the play. The Spanish midfielder advanced and swept it imperiously into Inter’s net.

Inter fought back and created a couple of chances, but their efforts ultimately foundered on the rocks of another sad Romelu Lukaku horrorshow on the biggest stage.

City came into the game as overwhelming favourites, and almost scored a brilliant goal after a couple of minutes when Bernardo Silva dribbled in from the right and shot just past the far post. Haaland then had his first chance, running through in the left channel but ballooning over.

A strong start – but then little things started to go wrong. On 11 minutes, Ederson tried a simple pass to Ake on the left but kicked the ball directly out of play.

Guardiola raised his arms and applauded the mistake, as though to say okay that was not the right pass but it was the right kind of pass. In the next move, Ederson made another mistake, losing the flight of a deep cross towards Lautaro Martinez at the far post, and ending up blocking luckily with his body.

The metronome Rodri then had a pass cut out to set up an Inter counterattack and on 26 minutes Ederson’s pass to Dias was hit too hard for his team-mate to control. This time there was no applause from Guardiola, who screamed “Relax! Relax!” His own expression looked less than relaxed.

Stung into action, City took the game to Inter and had a flurry of half-chances. De Bruyne played in Haaland, who shot straight at Onana. Then de Bruyne shot from 25 yards, straight at Onana. Then Grealish crossed low from the left – again straight at Onana.

City were getting back on top. But then de Bruyne suddenly sat down on the pitch, just in front of the bench. His despondent demeanour immediately suggested trouble. Had he tweaked something taking that shot? He got up and tried to play on but after a couple of minutes had to accept that his second Champions League final, like his first in 2021, had been cut short by injury.

The second half began with the same pattern as the first, City tentative, Inter tenacious. Brozovic signalled their intent with a brutal barge that cleaned out Gundogan. Sensing his side needed more energy, Guardiola shouted towards the City fans, urging them to start making some noise.

Over on the Inter bench, Simone Inzaghi turned and told Romelu Lukaku his moment had come. Back in December, Lukaku had suffered one of the all-time World Cup nightmares in Qatar, missing four clear chances in the second half as Belgium were knocked out by Croatia.

Here in a Champions League final, he had an unlikely shot at redemption. The departing Dzeko hugged him warmly as though to say, go and show them, Rom. He immediately won his first header, and the Inter fans roared.

Two minutes later, the City machine suffered a near-fatal sputter. Bernardo Silva turned and passed back towards Ederson, but the goalkeeper seemed to think the ball was intended for Manuel Akanji and did not move to receive it. Lautaro Martinez was in, but as Guardiola sank to his hands and knees in horror, the Argentinian striker shot straight at Ederson instead of passing to Lukaku in the middle.

City were rocked. Stones miscontrolled a pass from Grealish. Haaland – totally disconnected from the game – got free in the middle and passed straight to an opponent.

But just as it seemed the Italians had City where they wanted them, Guardiola’s team got the bounce they needed. Manuel Akanji drove forward and played a beautiful pass between defenders for Bernardo. His low cross hit the first man and bounced softly into the middle of the box. If Guardiola could have chosen any of his players to be coming on to the ball at that moment, it probably would have been Rodri. His emphatic finish swerved around two Inter defenders on its way into the net.

The Inter fans responded to the goal within seconds with cheers and after three minutes their side almost struck back.

A ball into the six-yard box bounced over Akanji, who lost his bearings under pressure from Lukaku, and DiMarco was there to loop a header over Ederson and off the face of the bar. As City scrambled, DiMarco followed up but his second header hit Lukaku and bounced away to safety.

The worst was yet to come. In the 88th minute, an Inter cross from the right was headed back across goal by substitute Robin Gosens to Lukaku, six yards out, with the entire empty right half of the goal to aim at. He headed the ball straight at Ederson, the City goalkeeper as stunned as anyone to see the ball bounce away off his shin.

You had to feel sorry for Lukaku, who came on the pitch seeking salvation, only to plunge back into purgatory. You also had to feel sorry for Inter’s fans, who were entitled to expect a supposedly top-level striker to put that chance away.

There was to be no third time lucky. After 95 minutes, the final whistle blew after a final Inter near-miss from a corner. City were champions, Guardiola vindicated, Abu Dhabi triumphant. The debate over City’s alleged financial doping has not gone away – if anything it is getting angrier and more toxic – but nobody can deny they have become the strongest team in Europe by far. This long-awaited Champions League win could be the first of many.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer