Calhanoglu can expect more Turkish delight than Gundogan at Champions League final

Inter's skipper chose to represent Turkey while Man City captain opted for Germany

Inter Milan's Turkish midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu during their Champions League semi-final victory over AC Milan. Reuters
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The captain of the favourites for Saturday’s European Champions League final will not quite be the favourite skipper taking part, at least when it comes to the citizens of Istanbul.

Loved though Ilkay Gundogan is by supporters of Manchester City, appreciated as he is by neutrals who recognise a superb footballer and an inspiring leader, there are tens of millions of Turks who prefer the pass-master of Internazionale’s midfield.

Hakan Calhanoglu is Turkey’s captain, you see, wearer of the armband for the national team, and, for that, a touchstone for what will be significant local presence in the grandstands at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium.

“Turkish fans will be divided,” says Simone Inzaghi, the Inter head coach, “some for Hakan, some for Ilkay.”

A few more, though, lean towards the player who, given the choice, decided to represent Turkey rather than the one who elected, instead of Turkey, to play for his country of birth.

Calhanoglu, 29, and Gundogan, 32, have followed parallel paths to this, the match that will give one of them the greatest prize yet of their careers.

They are both natives of Germany, born to families who moved there from Turkey for work.

Manchester City captain Ilkay Gundogan lifts the FA Cup after their victory against Manchester United at Wembley Stadium. AP

Their careers took off with Ruhr clubs, Bayer Leverkusen in the case of Calhanoglu and Borussia Dortmund for Gundogan. By then, they had diverged internationally.

Calhanoglu committed to Turkey, despite interest in him from the German Football Federation, from his early teens. Gundogan, courted by Turkey, said yes to Germany, with whom, but for injury, he would have travelled to the 2014 World Cup and finished with a winner’s medal.

Their journeys to their current clubs were complicated, their growth as midfield all-rounders tied closely to their coaches Inzaghi and Pep Guardiola. Calhanoglu was the first new player into Inter when Inzaghi arrived there in the summer of 2021. The move was controversial: the club Calhanoglu was leaving, having let his contract expire, were AC Milan.

That he crossed the city enraged milanisti; that he joined the fiercest rivals for free stoked the sense of betrayal.

When Milan then won the Serie A title, pipping Inter, the season after Calhanoglu swapped black-and-red for black-and blue, he was taunted. When Inter, with Calhanoglu exerting great influence, beat Milan last month in the Champions League semi-final, he silenced the jeers.

Inter v AC Milan: player ratings

Gundogan was City’s first signing after Pep Guardiola joined as manager in 2016. There were risks in luring him from Dortmund. He was in recovery from a knee injury. He ruptured a cruciate ligament two months after making his City debut.

Guardiola kept faith not only in a fit Gundogan as high-energy marshal from deep in midfield, but as a player who could extend his repertoire. In five seasons with Dortmund – where he reached a Champions League final in 2013, converting the equaliser from the penalty spot on the way to a 2-1 defeat by Bayern Munich – he never registered more than four goals in a season.

Since Guardiola began to encourage Gundogan to maximise his impact in the opposition penalty box, he has thrived as a finisher.

In 2020-21 he was City’s top goalscorer, a fact that made his selection as the deepest, only holding midfielder in the XI who lined up to face Chelsea in the Champions League final that season seem even more bizarre. Guardiola’s decision to start both Fernandinho and Rodri on the bench would be heavily criticised after Chelsea won 1-0.

In the two years since, Gundogan has been better protected, Rodri now a mainstay anchoring midfield, John Stones reinforcing that zone. A liberated Gundogan is a chief beneficiary.

Last weekend he passed double figures for goals in a season for the third campaign running, getting there after only 12 seconds of the FA Cup final against Manchester United, and later adding City’s winning goal.

That dramatic early strike at Wembley would have appealed to Calhanoglu, a specialist in long-range shooting. Calhanoglu is also an expert with a dead ball, with direct free-kicks or pinpoint deliveries for teammates to make use of.

A Calhanoglu corner set up Edin Dzeko’s early opening goal in the first leg of the semi-final against Milan, with Inter in charge of the tie from then on.

But, like Guardiola with Gundogan, Inzaghi has stimulated Calhanoglu to discover other fortes. When Mario Brozovic, long-term anchor of Inter’s midfield, suffered injury earlier this season, Calhanoglu was asked to retreat to a deeper role. He made accomplished work of it.

His sense of belonging and progress at Inter was endorsed this week with his committing to extend his contract there.

By contrast, Gundogan, having won five Premier Leagues with City, is considering moving on, seeking another challenge.

If, in his third Champions League final, he at last collects the European medal that has eluded him, he can regard his City adventure as totally fulfilled.

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Updated: June 08, 2023, 10:49 AM