Rodri ready for Manchester City’s final exam with Champions League in sight

<span>Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Rodri has the gleaming gold of an FA Cup winners’ medal around his neck and the lettering on his dark Manchester City T-shirt frames it all: “June 3rd 2023. CUP WINNERS. Kings of the City.”

It is Saturday evening at Wembley and what most people had foreseen – and not just the City kit guys – has come to pass. With Rodri imperious in midfield again, luxuriating in the form of his life, City have beaten Manchester United to complete the league and Cup Double. It is a sensational achievement and yet one which nobody has properly stopped to acknowledge.

That is because City are not finished. They are the kings of England for the fifth time in six seasons and how their supporters enjoyed letting everybody know that Manchester was blue after the cup final. But it is where they intend to go, the last leg of the journey, that holds them in thrall.

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“I think Pep [Guardiola] said that you will not be ‘Big, big’ if you don’t win in Europe,” Rodri says, looking forward to Saturday’s Champions League final against Internazionale in Istanbul. “It’s the exam we have to pass.”

For City, it is all about the Champions League. It has been all season and, frankly, it has been for many seasons. Domestic dominance is a beautiful thing and Guardiola has 11 major trophies in England with City, plus two Community Shields. But if the manager has long known that he needs to win in Europe’s elite competition to drive his legacy to the ultimate level, the fact he is now comfortable in saying so is insightful. It reveals a confidence.

Guardiola is ready and so are his players. They have drawn strength from the near misses in the Champions League, particularly the defeat against Chelsea in the 2021 final. Before the first leg of this season’s quarter-final against Bayern Munich, Rúben Dias had considered it in philosophical terms. “Like a very wise man said to me: ‘We didn’t lose the final. We just got one step closer [to winning it],’” the centre‑half said.

Rodri nods. “I would say the same,” he says. “I think to win you have to have lost before. To have a winning mentality in the Champions League you have to be there in the semi-finals, touch the finals. That’s the good point of this team. The last six, seven years we have been touching the semi‑finals and final. It is the only way to achieve and to win. We’re on that road. The effort of the team this year was incredible. We can win it.”

City’s power comes in part from what they have in reserve. They are not the deepest squad in terms of numbers – Guardiola has relied on 21 players since the end of January – but nobody can match them for quality. It was certainly a frightening exercise to compare their substitutes’ bench with United’s at Wembley.

When City signed Kalvin Phillips from Leeds for £42m last July they got a high-grade holding midfielder, one of the stars of the England team. There has been plenty of focus on Phillips’s difficulties this season but there is a big reason why he has been so peripheral: Rodri.

Guardiola has started the Spain international 34 times in the league and in 10 of the club’s 12 Champions League ties, including all of the knockout rounds. Rodri has responded to the threat of Phillips and simply suffocated it – very much on brand with what the team do to their opponents.

Has Rodri ever played better? “In my opinion, no,” he says. “I feel in the best moment – physically, mentally, the way I understand the game, the way I feed into the team. I try to help my teammates all the time but I try to grow every game, try to learn about the past.”

Rodri cannot ignore what has gone before, nor does he want to. Before the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, he went back to the corresponding fixture from last season’s competition in which City lost in such heartbreaking fashion. Revenge, he said, was a motivation. City would get it.

“It’s my fourth year here in England and when we win, when we lose, finals … everything you can learn from,” Rodri says. “I feel a more mature player in these situations. Is the 2021 final a lesson? As I tell you, we try to learn a lot from the past.

“I think the desire … how we played Real Madrid, for example, after a defeat against them last year. So we’re going to play in the same way, trying to solve the situation, come back from the situation and try to win the final.”

Like Guardiola, Rodri talks about focus and humility, going game by game. But now there is only one game, a single title remaining. “Of course, it [the treble] is there,” he says. “It’s something we dream about. We are going to prepare the game as what it is – a final against an Italian team, [who play with] five at the back … so, so tough, always demanding.

“We have to be confident in ourselves but don’t be relaxed. What we have to put on the pitch is the effort, running. Then the football comes along.”