(L to R) Manchester City’s Norwegian striker Erling Haaland, Manchester City’s Swiss defender Manuel Akanji, Manchester City’s English midfielder Jack Grealish and Manchester City’s German midfielder Ilkay Gundogan take part in a training session at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul on June 9, 2023, on the eve of the UEFA Champions League final against Inter Milan. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP)
Manchester City are heavy favourites to win their first-ever Champions League as the super-rich club takes on one of Europe’s old guard in resurgent Inter Milan.
Here we look at the battles which could define Saturday’s final in Istanbul:
Erling Haaland v Francesco Acerbi
Monster striker Haaland gives City a whole new dimension of attacking threat and if Inter are to have any chance of stopping Pep Guardiola’s team they need to stay right on top of the Norwegian.
Inter have been without former captain and star centre-back Milan Skriniar, who is off to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, for months due to a back injury and in theory there should be no match between Haaland and Acerbi.
Veteran Italy international Acerbi has been a capable replacement for Skriniar but he has not had to deal with this sort of striker, who will top the Champions League scoring charts for the second time in his career aged just 22.
The difficulty of Acerbi’s task was summed up by a young fan outside Inter’s training ground who gave the 35-year-old a fishing net with which to try and catch Haaland.
Kevin De Bruyne v Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Haaland might be the killer but De Bruyne is the man who loads the bullets for City and all-action midfielder Mkhitaryan will be crucial to stopping him from running riot.
De Bruyne has set up seven goals in 11 matches since the last international break, including two in City’s 4-0 destruction of Real Madrid in the second leg of their semi-final which confirmed their passage to Istanbul.
Inter’s midfield is a unit that attacks and defends as one but former Manchester United man Mkhitaryan, assuming he is fit to play, will be the lucky one from a three-man central trio who will most have to deal with De Bruyne’s forays.
Federico Dimarco v Kyle Walker
Milanese-born and raised and a lifelong Inter fan, wing-back Dimarco has become a key player for his boyhood club in his mid-20s after spending years away on a series of loans.
The 25-year-old provides width and dynamism on the left flank and delivers mean crosses and set-pieces, and his battle with pacy England full-back Walker will be key to how Inter build attacks and break on City, who are likely to dominate the ball.
A fixture this season in Inzaghi’s side following the departure of Ivan Perisic to Tottenham, Dimarco has played in 10 of Inter’s 12 Champions League match and set up five goals during their European campaign.
Lautaro Martinez v Manuel Akanji
Argentina forward Martinez is on another one of his characteristic goalscoring streaks and the latest has come just at the right time to do some damage to City.
Martinez has netted 11 times in his last 12 matches in all competitions and is perfectly happy linking up with either Edin Dzeko or similarly on-form Romelu Lukaku.
With one of Dzeko and Lukaku occupying Ruben Dias as more traditional centre-forwards, Lautaro will be buzzing around the City backline and targeting the area occupied by Akanji.
Ilkay Gundogan v Hakan Calhanoglu
Gundogan tends to step up when it counts for City, providing the midfield thrust with Rodri and the occasional important goal, such as winning his double in the FA Cup final against Manchester United.
Calhanoglu meanwhile has found a new lease of life since switching from one side of Milan to the other two years ago, and has the added incentive of trying to win the Champions League in his home country.