By JAMES ROBSON
ISTANBUL - Billions of dollars have been spent and many tears shed on Manchester City’s journey to the summit of European soccer.
The mission was completed in Istanbul’s Ataturk Olimpiyat Stadium on Saturday as the Abu Dhabi-backed club won the Champions League title for the first time and perhaps heralded the start of a new era of dominance in the competition.
“It was written in the stars. It belongs to us,” said Pep Guardiola after the 1-0 win against Inter Milan, as tears flowed again from the manager, his players and a sea of blue-shirted fans.
On this occasion, the emotion was pure ecstasy after so many disappointments on this stage.
The victory, courtesy of Rodri’s 68th minute goal, has been 15 years in the making since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan transformed City into one of the richest teams in the world overnight.
This was the final frontier for Guardiola’s team, which also completed a rare treble of trophies after winning the Premier League title and FA Cup this season.
The Champions League had always been a step that seemed out of reach even for a team that has spent more than $1.5 billion on the world’s best players and hired probably the greatest coach of his generation in Guardiola.
With that psychological barrier broken and the spending power to further improve a team that has already proved too good for the rest, the potential is there to win European club soccer’s biggest prize on multiple occasions.
Guardiola joked about being “just 13 Champions Leagues away” from Real Madrid.
“If you sleep a little bit we will catch you,” he said. “But I don’t want after one Champions League to disappear, so work harder next season and be in there. There are teams that win the Champions League and after one or two seasons disappear. This is what you have to avoid. Knowing me this is not going to happen. But at the same time I have to admit it, it is a big relief for the club, for the institution, for everyone to have this trophy. Because now, finally, they don’t have to ask me if we are going to win the Champions League or not.”
This trophy will also strengthen the case to declare Guardiola the greatest coach ever as he collected his third Champions League title and 30th major piece of silverware.
It was his second treble of trophies, having emulated the feat he achieved with Barcelona in 2009. City became just the second English club to complete a sweep of the three biggest trophies after Manchester United did it in 1999.
There were questions about whether Guardiola could ever win the Champions League again without the aid of Lionel Messi, who was the inspiration of his Barcelona team that was twice crowned champions of Europe.
Those questions have now been answered, yet for all the talk of City’s superiority leading up to the game, it was won by the finest of margins through Rodri’s strike.
Even after that goal, Inter had great chances to force extra time.
The best one fell to substitute Romelu Lukaku in the 89th minute, but he headed straight at Ederson from about four meters (yards) out.
Federico Dimarco hit the bar from close range almost immediately after Rodri’s goal and then turned the rebound against the legs of Lukaku.
“We didn’t deserve to lose,” said Inter coach Simone Inzaghi. “We played against a top team, but even Inter played a great final.
“Manchester City has deserved the Champions League considering what it has done in the past years. But tonight it played against a great Inter which cornered them.”
City found a way through on a night when it was far from its best and showed few examples of the flowing play that saw it blow away Bayern Munich and Real Madrid on the way to the final.
“Today we made history,” City captain Ilkay Gundogan said. “We knew everyone was talking about the treble. The pressure was there but this team is built to handle the pressure in the best possible way.”
Gundogan lifted the trophy as an explosion of gold ticker tape was set off and Queen’s “We are the Champions” rang out around the stadium.
Sheikh Mansour was in attendance to see the crowning moment, watching his team in person for only the second time since buying the club in 2008.
“One of the main reasons why this club became what we are is because people from Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mansour, take over the club,” Guardiola said. “Without that we would not be here. They are the most important people. ... They support me unconditionally in the defeats in this competition. At many clubs when that happens you are sacked.”
The victory ended Guardiola’s wait to win the trophy for the first time since 2011 and came despite losing inspirational midfielder Kevin De Bruyne to an injury in the first half.
The club’s fans likely feared the worst when he went down holding his right leg. It was as if history was repeating itself after injury had also forced the Belgium international off when City lost to Chelsea in its only other Champions League final in 2021.
But the decisive moment came when Rodri collected Bernardo Silva’s cutback and fired through a crowded penalty box.
The relief was unmistakable as he raced towards City’s fans and slid on his knees in celebration.
Inter pressed for an equalizer.
City held on. Europe had been conquered. A mission that began 15 years ago, completed.