There is a moment of reflection as Ilkay Gundogan casts his mind back to when the Champions League forever forged a place in his heart.
To Zinedine Zidane’s stunning volley that sealed Real Madrid’s triumph against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. And three years earlier to Manchester United’s dramatic comeback win over Bayern Munich.
The losses for both German clubs left an indelible mark on the football-passionate youngster growing up in Gelsenkirchen.
Gundogan, 30, says he cried when his first chance of lifting the trophy went in 2013. His equalizer from the penalty spot ultimately a consolation for Borussia Dortmund as Arjen Robben’s last-minute goal gave Bayern a 2-1 victory in an all-German showdown.
He is the only Manchester City player to have played in a Champions League final as the Premier League champions take on English rivals Chelsea tonight in Porto.
“Of course it hurt,” Gundogan said. “Maybe even thinking about that final, it hurts even more because I was not able to reach that final for a second time until now… after eight years.”
“It shows how fine the margins are to get into the final and how difficult it is. Some get the opportunity just once, some never,” he added. “For me, the Champions League was always the ultimate target, the ultimate achievement in my career — and still is. It’s from the way I grew up, watching it on TV, those special nights, this competition means a lot to me.
“The first final I saw live was the one with Zidane’s volley, but I also remember watching highlights of the Bayern-United game, how that game changed, which was so incredible.”
Injury-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer clinched a treble for United that night — a feat Gundogan’s City can match after the Premier League and League Cup successes this season.
In a touching gesture after City’s League Cup win over Tottenham last month, Gundogan was pictured consoling a tearful Son Hueng-Min rather than celebrating immediately.
“It was a gesture of empathy,” he added. “I’ve been there, it’s hard, but there’s no other solution than trying to get over it. If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be,” he said.
“I cried after the Champions League final I lost with Dortmund, and I cried in the dressing room after the quarter-final defeat to Lyon in Portugal last season. I want a different result for this final and will try everything possible to do it.”
City are bidding to take the prize for the first time in their history, amid a widespread view that a win is essential if Pep Guardiola’s side are to rank alongside great sides such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, United or Liverpool.
“In the eyes of the public, yes, it seems like this,” added Gundogan. “In my own eyes, no. I feel it’s 100 per cent deserved to stand alongside those teams. We showed, talking from the time Pep and I came here five years ago, so much consistency.”
Gundogan believes City have evolved every season under Guardiola.
“This team is built to win trophies, but in a certain way,” he said. “With Pep, we have someone who always showed us the way, if that’s the help needed to try to reach our limits, to play as good as possible and enjoy it. Winning is worth nothing if you don’t enjoy it.”
“Looking forward, I don’t see anyone better than us. It might sound arrogant, selfish or whatever, but the way we play, the way we train, the potential we have, it would be stupid to get in somewhere else where you don’t have this structure of a team, of a football club,” Gundogan said. “Some might disagree, but over the next years I don’t see anyone having more chance of winning the Champions League than Man City — and the other trophies too.”
In a Covid-affected campaign, where Gundogan struggled after testing positive for the illness in September, there have been many challenges.
But he, and City, recovered to achieve remarkable results, including a 21-match record winning run — in all competitions — from December to March that took them from ninth to first in the Premier League.
Gundogan, enjoying his best season at the Etihad, has played a pivotal role. A 17-goal haul has made him the club’s top scorer and brought deserved plaudits.
“It’s nice to maybe get a little bit more attention in scoring goals, but that was never my target,” he said. “I don’t think just because I’ve scored more, it’s more special this season or I’m in the best possible shape.”
Scoring more goals or better stats were not something that ever concerned the German international, and he knows that one man’s opinion matters the most.
“The feedback from the manager is most important to me, but of course it’s nice to be loved by the supporters,” said Gundogan. “It’s been an extraordinary year, such a difficult year for everyone. To get their attention and appreciation, I can’t deny it, it’s so special.”
His quality, despite serious back and knee injuries, has certainly been appreciated by his managers.
Be it Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel at Dortmund, or Guardiola, who made him City’s first signing when he took charge in 2016.
Gundogan is “grateful” to work with such coaching luminaries and fulsome in his praise of Tuchel, who replaced Frank Lampard at Chelsea in January.
“He is similar to Pep, into all the details of the game,” he added.
“Even though I had Thomas for only one year and world football didn’t have him on the radar back then, I was telling everyone how great he is as a manager, how much I liked him, how much he taught me. It feels quite nice that everyone recognizes it now.”
“I remember Thomas calling me before he joined Dortmund, in pre-season,” said Gundogan. “I was in talks to leave and he told me: ‘I know you want to go with Pep one day and I am sure I can prepare you as good as possible for the time because I also admire him a lot and I think we see football quite similarly. So if you are willing to stay at Dortmund, I am going to prepare you as good as possible for Pep one day’.”
That preparation on the training ground certainly helped turn the midfielder into a “Pep” footballer.
“This final will be tough,” he said. “It was a good moment for us beating them in the league in January, a turning point in the season, going on that incredible run.”
“But you can’t compare that Chelsea team with the one right now under Thomas,” Gundogan concluded. “This one is more stable. We have lost the last two games against them and I, personally, don’t want to lose a third time in a row. It’s time to beat them now.”