UEFA Champions League: Road to Istanbul 2023

UEFA Champions League: Road to Istanbul 2023

As football fans around the globe anticipate the grand UEFA Champions League Final 2023 in Istanbul, The Game looks at each finalist’s treacherous way to the most important football game in European club football.

Istanbul and Champions League Final rings a bell for every football enthusiast, as one of the most memorable finals was played there, in 2005 when Liverpool FC battled their way to victory against a star-studded AC Milan side.

Dive into the recent campaign of this year’s finalists, Manchester City and Inter, with The Game Magazine article by Johannes Häring.

IMAGO / Sportimage / Andrew Yates | Manchester City Striker Erling Braut Haaland.

IMAGO/Marco Canoniero
IMAGO / Marco Canoniero | Inter Striker Lautaro Martinez.

The Group Stage

English champion Manchester City were the clear favorite in their respective group, with Borussia Dortmund proving to be the only challenge overall. Norwegian striking sensation Erling Braut Haaland faced his former team and scored an artistic wonder goal winner at the Etihad, which reminded head coach Pep Guardiola of Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff’s goal against Atletico Madrid in 1973/74.

The Sky Blues breezed past the other opponents Sevilla FC and FC Kopenhagen, as Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland managed to transfer their exceptional Premier League form into the Champions League.

Manchester City

IMAGO / Sportimage | Erling Haaland’s artistic goal against his former team during the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund in Manchester. Sept. 14, 2022, UK.

Jack Grealish takes a shot against FC Kopenhagen.

Former teammates greet each other.

Pep Guardiola applaudes the away fans in Dortmund.

Erling Haaland celebrates with Kevin De Bruyne.

Being drawn into a difficult group with German record champion Bayern Munich, and the strong, newly assembled Barcelona side around generational talents Pedri and Gavi, Inter faced a tough way to the knockout stages from the beginning. The Nerazzurri were left chanceless in both games against Bayern, losing both games 2-0.

Their hopes for a ticket to the Round of 16 relied on their performances against the Catalan team. In the first game, Hakan Çalhanoğlu secured the three points at the Giuseppe-Meazza-Stadium, despite a dominant showing from Blaugrana, who protested against dubious refereeing decisions and felt disadvantaged.

At Camp Nou, a thrilling game was anticipated as Barca needed the three points to qualify in front of Inter and avoid being knocked out in the group stage for the second year in a row. It was their last straw of hope because an away game at Bayern awaited them. The game ended 3-3, with Barcelona being wasteful with their many chances and conceding two counterattacks at their own ground. The late 3-2 by Robin Gosens in the 89th minute buried the last hopes of Barcelona finishing in front of Inter, who were now standing with one leg in the Round of 16 of the Champions League, just pending a point against last placed Viktoria Plzen, who they managed to beat easily with 4-0.

The Nerazzurri would now face FC Porto in the first knockout stage.


IMAGO / NurPhoto / Giuseppe Maffia | Alessandro Bastoni competes with Gavi, UEFA Champions League, match between Barcelona FC and Inter. 4 October 2022, Italy.

Milan Skriniar is ecstatic after their Group victory against Barcelona.

Robin Gosens late 3-2 against Barcelona.

Federico Di Marco celebrates his goal against Viktoria Plzen.

Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting attempts a bicycle kick.

The Round Of 16

Manchester City now faces German team RB Leipzig in the Round of 16. In the first leg in Saxony, Germany, City had an uninspired outing and got away with a lucky 1-1 draw in the end. Missing creative pivot Kevin De Bruyne, City could not get anywhere near their dominant form, from the group stages in this first away leg. But, in the return leg at the Etihad Stadium, City demolished the RedBull-owned club 7-0. Haaland profited massively from the return of his congenial partner and trusted supplier Kevin De Bruyne, scoring a total of 5 goals in this single game. It was a statement victory for the opponents to come.

Inter, on the other side of the tournament tree, was facing a tough challenge against FC Porto and highly-regarded coach Sérgio Conceição. Romelu Lukaku gave Inter the late, but vital 1-0 lead in the first leg at home, which created a good position for Inter’s away trip to Portugal. At the Estadio do Dragao, Porto tried everything to overcome the Italian Catenaccio approach of Simone Inzaghi, but the Nerazzurri managed to hold off every attack of the Dragons, ending the game 0-0.

Manchester City Cruises Past RB Leipzig

IMAGO / PA Images / Nick Potts | Erling Haaland scores 5 goals against Leipzig, Manchester City vs Red Bull Leipzig, UEFA Champions League, Round of Sixteen. March 14, 2023, UK.

Pep Guardiola frustrated on the sideline.

Christopher Nkunku controls the ball.

Erling Haaland slides on his knees, celebrating his first goal against Leipzig.

Goal-net view of Erling Haaland scoring.

Inter Prevails Against FC Porto

IMAGO / Fotoarena / Luca Castro | Romelu Lukaku celebrates his late, vital winner against Porto by pointing to the sky, UEFA Champions League Round Of 16, FC Porto vs Inter. 22 Feb 2023, Italy.

Veteran Pepe helps up Lautaro Martinez.

Inter Fans during the Round Of 16 against Porto.

Pepe (Porto) competes with Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Inter).

Inter players celebrate their quarter-finals qualification.

The Quarter-Finals

Now awaiting was the next big challenge for Pep Guardiola’s Sky Blues. Bayern Munich, who eliminated Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16, would be another stepping stone on City’s way to the final. The chaos around the Bavarian club fueled the drama around this grand quarter-final match-up. Newly appointed head coach Thomas Tuchel replaced his predecessor Julian Nagelsmann and had an excellent record against Pep Guardiola and Manchester City during his time at Chelsea.

This time around T.T. drew the shorter straw, mostly because of costly defensive errors of his side, which City clinically punished, winning the first leg in Manchester 3-0.The return leg was a defensive masterclass by Guardiola’s team and left Bayern Munich with no answer to break through. Erling Haaland penalized another fatal error by Dayot Upamecano in the 57th minute setting the aggregate score to 4-0. City was in the semi-finals.

Inter faced another Portuguese side, this time the most in-form team in Europe, Benfica. German coach Roger Schmidt has transformed the Eagles around striking talent Gonçalo Ramos into an offensive machine, which overran their opponents on a regular basis. Inter managed to stop that well-oiled machine in the first game at the Estádio da Luz, winning 0-2 thanks to goals by Nicolo Barella and Romelu Lukaku, who overcame the racist attacks he faced against Juventus a week before. Benfica displayed their striking offensive power in the return leg, scoring three times, but Inter matched their output, ending the game 3-3.

Manchester City Faces Bayern Munich

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Alexandra Fechete | Erling Haaland shushes the Bayern Munich supporters after his goal in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final match between FC Bayern Munich and Manchester City at Allianz Arena. 19 April, 2023, Munich, Germany.

Rodri celebrates his wonder goal.

Haaland lets of a shot.

Pep Guardiola during a press conference.

Atmosphere at Allianz Arena in Munich before kick-off.

Inter Up Against Benfica 

IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Henrique Casinhas | Romelu Lukaku prepares himself to take the important penalty during the UEFA Champions League quarter final first leg match between SL Benfica and Inter at Estadio do Lisboa e Benfica. April 11, 2023, Lisbon, Portugal.

Nicolo Barella taunts the Benfica fans.

Benfica Striker Goncalo Ramos tries to get a penalty against Inter Goalkeeper Andre Onana.

Aerial duel between Edin Dzeko and Nicolas Otamendi.

Joaquin Correa and Romelu Lukaku celebrate.

The Semi-Finals

Regarded as the early or premature final, Manchester City was now up against Real Madrid in one of the most anticipated games in world football. The Galacticos are the record champions of the UEFA Champions League and a favorite in every match-up, no matter the opponent. Their record of coming back from hardships and overcoming the most difficult opponents and challenges is matched by no other and has never been seen before.

Guardiola vs. Ancelotti. Haaland vs. Benzema. De Bruyne vs. Modric. The best of the best faced each other in this match-up.

Manchester City sought revenge after getting knocked out by Real in last year’s dramatic semi-final comeback. Both teams displayed a very careful and tempered approach to the game, until star-winger Vinícius Júnior opened the score with a thunderous strike into the back of the net. Kevin De Bruyne equalized with another beautiful goal. Going into the second leg at home with a draw was a good-enough situation for the Sky Blues.

In the crucial second leg at the Etihad, Manchester City played a first half for the history books. A total domination and humiliation of Real Madrid in 45 minutes. A masterclass by Pep Guardiola. Tactically and mentally his team was ready to give everything to get to Istanbul. They beat Real Madrid 4-0 in the end, but could have easily won about 10-0.

Manchester City Tear Down The Reign Of Real Madrid

IMAGO / PA Images | A thoughtful Carlo Ancelotti, Manchester City v Real Madrid. UEFA Champions League, Semi Final. 17 May 2023, UK.

Kyle Walker and Vinicius Jr after the full-time whistle.

Kevin De Bruyne celebrates his equalizer.

Erling Haaland displays his leaping ability.

Ruben Dias and John Stones celebrate the victory.

Inter Survives The Battle Of Milan

IMAGO / Gribaudi / ImagePhoto | The Dynamic Duo of Inter celebrate in iconic fashion, UEFA Champions League, AC Milan vs Inter. May 16, 2023, Italy.

Two rivalling fans anticipating the grand derby.

The captains before kick-off.

Edin Dzeko’s opener in the first leg of the semi-final.

Lautaro Martinez celebrates his 1-0 decider in the return leg with the fans.

The other semi-final saw a European edition of the Derby della Madonnina. Inter clashes with AC Milan. An everlasting rivalry in the city of fashion and glamour.

Red vs. Blue. This semi-final was about more than just the ticket to Istanbul.

In a heated atmosphere at San Siro, AC had the home advantage for the first leg, as both teams play in the same stadium. The Rossoneri Tifosi cheered on their injury-prone team, who missed star player Rafael Leao and lost Ismael Bennacer early in the game. Inter’s experienced squad punished Milan’s naivety. 37-year old Edin Džeko and 34-year old Henrikh Mkhitaryan gave Inter a quick head start in the game and a comfortable lead for the return leg.

In both games Milan, who were also struggling to find form in the Serie A, did not find an answer to the rock-solid defense of Inter, led by veteran Francesco Acerbi and Milan Škriniar. Lautaro Martinez killed the last hopes of Milan in the 74th minute of the second game at San Siro, which was now filled with enthusiastic Nerazzurri fans, who were excited to accompany their love to Istanbul.

The Road Ends In Istanbul

For both teams, this final could be the coronation of a great UEFA Champions League campaign. Manchester City could get their hands on the dazzling Champions League trophy for the first time. It would also be their first international trophy since winning the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1969/70 against Gornik Zabrze.

Inter would add another Champions League title to their 2010 victory against Bayern Munich at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid under Jose Mourinho.

In the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, the stage is set for the grand final of European Football and millions of football fans worldwide anticipate the Battle at the Bosporus.

IMAGO / PA Images / Mike Egerton | A promotional flag waves in the wind ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey.

IMAGO / PA Images / Nick Potts | The Champions League Final match ball, Istanbul, Turkey.

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IMAGO / Panthermedia / echo08 | The venue of the Champions League Final 2023, Atatürk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul, Turkey.

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IMAGO / Moritz Müller | Goran Pandev (l) and Diego Milito (r) celebrate the goal of the Argentinian Striker in the UCL Final 2010 against Bayern Munich, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain.

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IMAGO / Moritz Müller | The MOTM of the UCL Final 2010, Diego Milito, celebrates his goal against Bayern Munich, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain.

IMAGO / Pressinphoto / Sergio Ruiz | Manchester City head coach Pep Guardiola.

IMAGO/Nicolo Campo
IMAGO / Nicolo Campo | Inter head coach Simone Inzaghi.

IMAGO / PA Images / Adam Davy | Pep Guardiola after his final loss against Chelsea in 2021, Estadio do Dragao, Porto, Portugal

Article and Image selection by Johannes Häring.

See the special collections from this year’s Champions League campaign:

Champions League Road To The Final, Manchester City

Champions League Road To The Final, Inter.

Champions League Final Preview, Manchester City – Inter.