Raheem Sterling was speaking about himself but he could have been discussing Manchester City. Where the Champions League is concerned, there have been dreams and reality. And now, eventually, they could coalesce.
City’s debut in the modern-day Champions League came in 2011 in a 1-1 draw with Napoli; Sterling’s bow in the competition came three years later with Liverpool. The Merseysiders have since conquered Europe but not Sterling and not City; a muted semi-final performance in 2016 was the best each had to show. Until now.
“I was very ambitious as a kid, always dreaming, but at the same time you would never think that you would be in a Champions League final,” said the winger. “You would always say you would like to, but then your dreams become a reality. Since my time at this club, that has been the ultimate goal.”
In a dozen seasons, City have won five Premier Leagues, six League Cups and two FA Cups. In a decade in the Champions League, they have had a solitary semi-final, three exits apiece in the last 16 and the quarter-finals and those initial two failures to progress from the group stage.
It has been a frustrating tale, often without the promise of a happy ending, featuring a chastening start and a number of hard-luck stories. “In the past we haven’t had the rub of the green and the luck that we needed,” added Sterling, whose disallowed injury-time ‘winner’ against Tottenham in 2019 represented one of the cruellest near-misses. “There have been games that we should have won and certain circumstances we haven’t.”
City showed a strength of character this year, whether with Phil Foden’s late winner in the quarter-final first leg against Borussia Dortmund or the Kevin de Bruyne-inspired fightback after trailing to Paris Saint-Germain in the last four.
But left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko put it bluntly: “The difference between previous seasons was that we reached the final. Maybe in the end you have to be a bit lucky. The way we are working hard, the way we play, the feeling inside the dressing room is the same during all these years.”
City could now become the Champions League’s first ‘new’ winners since Chelsea in 2012. Not, though, if the Londoners have anything to do with it. Their two previous European Cup finals have both gone to penalties, which could mean their fate rests in goalkeeper Ederson’s hands.
“I don’t think there is one favourite: it’s 50-50,” said the Brazilian, who saved a penalty from Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson on Sunday. City finished 19 points ahead of Chelsea but have lost both meetings since Thomas Tuchel took over.
“Unfortunately, in the last two confrontations against them we were defeated, but I think we played well overall,” Ederson said. “He [Tuchel] is doing an amazing job. Their defensive consistency has improved a lot.” Chelsea faced a second-string City side at the Etihad 20 days ago and Zinchenko said: “It will be a completely different game to the Premier League.”
A bullish Sterling, who scored then, said that defeat would have no bearing. “You go into it with a clean mindset, those games that happened against them in recent times go out the window,” said the England international. “The only thing that can stop us is ourselves.”
If they do not halt themselves, they will have their second treble in three years. But it would also be the culmination of a decade of trying in Europe, of 13 years of progress, of five under Pep Guardiola and of many an individual’s dream. “It's the most important game in our careers,” Ederson said. “It's a remarkable day for the players, but also for Manchester City.”