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Revisiting Ilkay Gundogan

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Ilkay Gundogan is a little sheepish as he admits it. It is not what he is supposed to do, he knows. He is supposed to take each game as it comes. That is the professional’s mantra. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Think about today, rather than tomorrow. That is what a sports psychologist would advise. It is what his manager, certainly, would recommend.

It is not, though, what he has done. From the moment Manchester City eliminated Paris St.-Germain earlier this month to qualify for its first Champions League final, Gundogan has found himself thinking about almost nothing else. “There’s not been a day when I haven’t thought about this game,” he said. “Maybe too much, to be honest.”

Even after Manchester City won the Premier League title — in absentia, effectively; the club’s crown was confirmed when Manchester United, its closest challenger, lost to Leicester City on May 12 — he did not feel in celebratory mood. The euphoria of that achievement almost passed him by. Instead, in his mind, it meant he could focus more absolutely on Chelsea, on Porto, on Saturday.

“I tried to convince myself that everything was preparation for the final,” he said. “I didn’t want to hold back for one second. In training, in my private life, I tried to keep myself as up as possible.”

City’s top scorer in the Premier League this season was not Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling or Kevin De Bruyne. It was Gundogan, with 13 goals.Credit…Pool photo by Scott Heppell

Affectionately, his friends and his family suggested that he was at risk of causing himself additional stress. Gundogan is smart, and thoughtful, and logical. He had considered the issue. They worried about him far more than he worried about himself. “This is just how I am,” he said.

He has wondered, over the last few weeks, whether the final has occupied so much of his mental energy because he knows the pain of losing one. Alone on City’s squad, Gundogan has tasted the Champions League final. He was on the Borussia Dortmund team that lost, late, to Bayern Munich in London in 2013. It is not something he has put out of his mind. “When you get the taste of playing in that game, and you lose, it does feel like unfinished business,” he said.

Every major final, of course, is laced with these sorts of stories: the club seeking revenge for a bitter defeat or the coach trying to cement his legacy or the president trying to live up to the legacy of his father or the team trying to quiet the ghosts of its predecessors.

This weekend’s is no different. There are private stories, not unlike Gundogan’s. Chelsea’s Thiago Silva was part of the P.S.G. team that lost to Bayern Munich in Lisbon last year. He, too, will see this as a chance to address a regret. His teammate Mateo Kovacic, meanwhile, has been to the biggest game in club soccer twice, and has never played in it: He remained on the substitutes’ bench as Real Madrid lifted the trophy in 2017 and 2018.

Gundogan in 2013, when he scored in the Champions League final but did not win it.Credit…Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

And there are broader themes. This is Pep Guardiola’s first encounter in a decade with the game in which he confirmed his brilliance, his opportunity to win a third European Cup, the high-water mark for any manager. It is the culmination of Manchester City’s relentless march toward the pinnacle of the European game, the coronation as the game’s supreme power that represents the ultimate purpose and vindication of Abu Dhabi’s billion-dollar intervention in soccer.

But some stories cut through more than others. A few years ago, Gundogan granted The Times rare access to his rehabilitation from a torn cruciate ligament. Over the course of eight months or so, he allowed us to track every stage of his recuperation — from his surgery in Barcelona to his first steps in the gym and on to his return first to training and then to the field.

He invited us into his home, introduced us to his family, allowed us to photograph him in his private box at the Etihad Stadium as — a little distracted, a little mournful — he watched his team play yet another game without him. He made us Turkish coffee. He showed us his collection of sneakers. He did not mind when we asked whether he needed quite so many in gold.

One afternoon, after checking that nobody was around, he took us into the club’s sanctum sanctorum: the first-team changing room at City’s training facility. Strictly speaking, it is for players only; the club has a firewall around first-team areas, one that applies even to senior employees, let alone journalists.

Stealthily, as though he was quite enjoying the transgression, Gundogan opened a door at the back of the room to reveal what looked, at first glance, like a spa room at a country house hotel: a sauna, a cold bath, a couple of pristine swimming pools, complete with retractable floors and basketball hoops.

After injuring his knee, Gundogan offered The Times an unusually candid look inside his recovery.Credit…Kieran Dodds for The New York Times

More important, he spoke openly and frankly about the loneliness of injury, the fear, the frustration, the self-doubt, the boredom, the existential angst of being unable to do a job that is also an all-consuming identity. He talked a lot about the close group of half a dozen friends that has surrounded him since he was young; about how the prospect of a monthlong vacation with all of them, in Los Angeles, had gotten him through the long, bleak spring that year.

That injury was not the first setback Gundogan had experienced. He had previously missed out on playing for Germany in the 2014 World Cup and in Euro 2016, too. He had endured a back problem that, at one juncture, he feared might dog him throughout his career, perhaps even end it.

He is cool and considered and rational — he is proud of his Turkish heritage, but in many ways, he is very obviously German — but those disappointments nagged at him. He worried, deep down, that he was cursed not to have the career he might have had.

And then, slowly but surely, he made his way back. As he did so over the past few years, it would have been impossible not to take some pleasure in seeing him thrive after seeing, close up, all that he had been through, not to feel a little vicarious happiness when he started, all of a sudden, scoring goals as City swept the rest of the Premier League aside this season. There had been points when he worried that the injury would rob him of something, that he would return somehow diminished, and yet here he was, better than ever.

Gundogan has won 10 trophies at City. Saturday offers the opportunity for one more, and a bit of validation.Credit…Pool photo by Clive Brunskill

To report on a game is to suspend emotion. It sounds deeply unconvincing, but it is true: From experience, what matters in the 89th minute of watching your team in a major final is not whether it holds on to a lead or staves off a defeat, but that you have a decent connection to the Wi-Fi, more than 40 percent of your battery’s life, and a lead section for the story your office expects that is not a complete disaster. The disappointment or delight comes only after the words are written.

Personal connections, though, are more complex, harder to suspend; those are the stories that cut through. Whatever happens on Saturday, what will matter most is what always matters on these occasions: reliable Wi-Fi, a conveniently located power socket, a vague idea of something to write.

Should Manchester City win, though, the first thought will not be what it means for the power dynamics of the game or where this places Guardiola in the pantheon of history’s greatest coaches. It will be much smaller, much more personal: that this is the moment Gundogan has waited for, that this is the moment he worried he might never get to have, that everything he has been through was, ultimately, worth it.


Maybe This New Idea Is a Good Idea?

Chelsea’s team rolled into Porto on Thursday afternoon.Credit…Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters

This is becoming something of a theme. This week, as you may have noticed, my unstoppable — no, really: We try to get him to take vacations, and he just … doesn’t — colleague Tariq Panja reported that UEFA was exploring the idea of tweaking the format of the Champions League, swapping out the current two-legged semifinals for a weeklong “final four” tournament.

To those of you who follow college basketball in the United States, this concept will require no explanation. To those of you who don’t: In lieu of the traditional home-and-away semifinals, followed by a final in a neutral venue, all three matchups would be one and done, held in the same city, over the course of a few days.

The reaction to this news, broadly, was predictable: much wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over UEFA’s riding roughshod over the long-suffering, match-going fan. It seemed, to be frank, a little overblown, as if this is just how soccer as a whole is conditioned to greet any change whatsoever nowadays, as the manifestation of some lingering evil.

That is not to say the idea is perfect. It is not. The home leg of a semifinal is the biggest game a club can host at its stadium. Abolishing them would deprive tens of thousands of fans every year of an opportunity to attend a genuine, red-letter event. Travel to and accommodation in the predetermined host city every year would be chaotic, and expensive. And mixing fans of four clubs over the course of a week would be a strain on police resources.

A change like this could not be imposed from above; it would have to be done in consultation with and with concessions to fans. UEFA would need to demand that cities provide reasonably priced accommodations as a condition of hosting. Flights, too, would have to be made affordable.

But none of that is impossible. The idea could work. At the very least, it is surely worthy of discussion. It might be worse than what we have now. It might be tried and deemed to have failed. But there is also a possibility that it might prove better, more dramatic, more compelling.

We have spent the last two months railing against the elite teams’ demanding that they play one another more often, claiming that the familiarity will breed contempt, that jeopardy is what makes the Champions League special. Reacting no less furiously to something that would introduce added jeopardy, and make games between the elite ever so slightly rarer, seems incoherent, as if what you are objecting to is not the nature of change, but change itself.


Mañana, Mañana

A sneak peek at Luis Suárez’s Christmas card to Barcelona’s board.Credit…Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Luis Suárez, deep down, will not be impressed. The Uruguayan striker was unceremoniously dumped by Barcelona last summer, the club deciding that he was so old and so expensive that it would — despite the protestations of Lionel Messi — be a relief to offload him onto Atlético Madrid.

A year later, of course, it has worked out quite nicely for Suárez: He scored the goal, last Saturday, that gave Atlético its first title in La Liga since 2014. That his exit still rankles, though, is clear: The sweat from that game had barely dried before he was suggesting that Barcelona had “undervalued” him.

That will only be exacerbated by the fact that, a year later, Barcelona has at last identified a replacement. To take over from the then-33-year-old and thus over-the-hill Suárez, the club has plumped for the, er, 32-year-old Sergio Agüero. In public, Suárez has given the move his “complete support.” In private, he cannot fail to not to see the irony.

That is not to say there is no sense in Barcelona’s apparent transfer policy this summer. In addition to Agüero, the club is hoping to add Georginio Wijnaldum (30) and the 27-year-old Dutch forward Memphis Depay. Eric García, a 20-year-old defender, is the only notable introduction of youth into a squad in desperate need of rejuvenation.

It appears that Sergio Agüero will pursue his next trophy at Barcelona.Credit…Pool photo by Peter Powell

What unites all four, of course, is the fact that they will not cost Barcelona a cent in transfer fees. All of them are out of contract. Their salaries may be burdensome, but they represent a chance to bulk out the team on a shoestring. Given Barcelona’s precipitous financial situation, adding four players for nothing would seem to be smart business.

And yet the suspicion lingers that none of this solves the problem. Both Agüero and Wijnaldum are too old to have any resale value at all when the time comes for them to leave. Depay, too, will depreciate quickly. Barcelona, once again, is taking the short-term path when salvation lies in the long: selling off whatever aging stars they can this year, adding youth where possible, and starting the long, slow process of rebuilding.

He might have had his revenge, but Barcelona was not wrong, last summer, to release Suárez. He is in the twilight of his career. He was earning a lot of money. That was not the mistake (though selling him to Atlético was, clearly, foolhardy). The mistake is replacing him with a player of exactly the same profile, solving today’s problem without thinking about tomorrow.


Penalties Are Easy Now

Villarreal players who made their penalties charging the goalkeeper who finally stopped one, Gerónimo Rulli.Credit…Pool photo by Aleksandra Szmigiel

At the point when Gerónimo Rulli, an actual goalkeeper, stepped up to dispatch what was presumably the first penalty of his career with all the practiced élan of a seasoned striker, it felt as if the Europa League final might go on forever.

Manchester United and Villarreal had played out a grinding 1-1 draw over the course of 120 minutes and were now seemingly inseparable even by penalties. All 11 Villareal players had scored — those who seemed nervous and those who seemed calm, the youngsters and the veterans, the forwards and the defenders. Even Raúl Albiol, who has apparently transmogrified into a weary fisherman.

And all 10 of United’s outfield players had matched them. Of those, Luke Shaw alone had any real reason to feel fortunate, his shot squirming away from Rulli’s left arm and nestling, with a sigh of relief, in the corner of the goal. The rest had all been picture perfect: precise and powerful, penalties as executed by machines.

It was David De Gea who broke the streak, a cruel inversion of the usual law that goalkeepers are supposed to be heroes in penalty shootouts, not villains. As the inquests into United’s defeat began, the line between success and failure felt grotesquely thin: How dare Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the United manager, not have factored in that his goalkeeper might not be great at taking penalties?

De Gea’s failure, though, highlighted just how good all of the other penalties had been. This seems to happen more and more now — penalty shootouts in which more than the traditional five are required, in which all of the players seem to have the technique and the poise to convert, even under intense pressure.

It is worth asking why that might be. Players, generally, are technically better than they were a couple of decades ago. Clubs practice shootouts more often (though not Villarreal, as it happens). Managers focus intently on the psychology of their squads, readying them for these high-pressure moments. And does that mean that we might need to find an alternative to penalties? Asking goalkeepers to take penalties is, after all, not too far removed from the way of settling ties soccer used to have: the toss of a coin. There must, somewhere, be a better option.


Correspondence

We start on an existential note from Tse Wei Lim: “There is something very capitalist, or perhaps Shakespearean, about the idea that Atlético, having learned to excel in La Liga, should now attempt to excel in Europe. Is there anything wrong with a club being content with domestic excellence and a profound sense of identity?”

There is not, not at all, and this is something that soccer as a whole might do well to consider (and I include myself in that). Not achieving the ultimate success — if that is what the Champions League represents — does not consequentially make you a failure.

Named for Madrid and dressing like Spain: lots of letters about Real Salt Lake this week.Credit…Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

A lively exchange of views followed the discussion of team names in Major League Soccer. Ryan Humphries believes those that work “build on European names without pilfering them: Columbus Crew and my hometown Philadelphia Union shine because they embody the idea of a united front, just as in Manchester and Newcastle, but in a distinctly American way. This is opposed to Real Salt Lake or Sporting Kansas City, which really sound like Gucci knockoff identities.”

(This is a great phrase and I will, sadly, be stealing it without attribution.)

Joey Klonowski, meanwhile, suggests “the best team names capture the history or iconography of their city. In America, that’s possible with American-style names (Portland Thorns, Chicago Fire) or with Euro-style names (Minnesota United).” I agree, though the Fire thing is weird: Why celebrate an event that destroyed a city? You wouldn’t turn Napoli into the Naples Volcanoes, would you?

And more disdain for Real Salt Lake from Don Waugaman. The most egregious example, Don wrote, of “an attempt to impose a borrowed form of authenticity on a product is Real Salt Lake, a direct rip-off of one of the world’s biggest soccer teams in a country that was founded on anti-monarchism. Couldn’t we at least have gone with ‘Republica Salt Lake’?” Or, to follow the Fire example, maybe the Salt Lake Winter Olympics Bid Scandal.

That’s all for this week. I’ll flick through your questions and comments and ideas while I’m enjoying the — checks weather app — rain in Porto.