While Erling Haaland is feeling the weight of expectations ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final, Lautaro Martinez is aiming to complete a spectacular double, six months after winning the World Cup with Argentina. (More Football News)
They are the players who could make the difference when Manchester City faces Inter Milan at Istanbul’s Ataturk Olimpiyat Stadium.
“Of course I feel pressure,” said Haaland, the prolific City striker. “I would lie if I said I didn’t. You say it yourself and it’s true — they (City) won the Premier League without me, they won every trophy without me. So I’m here to try to do a thing that the club has never done before and I’ll do my best.”
Haaland’s frank admission is a measure of what is at stake in European club football's biggest game.
He has appeared to have ice in his veins in his first season at City in which he has scored 52 goals, won two trophies and is now on the brink of leading the club to its first Champions League title.
The prospect of conquering Europe, however, has been playing on his mind as the final approaches.
Martinez may not be as celebrated as Haaland, but he is one of Inter’s few stars in a team that features a number of veteran players and is an unlikely finalist.
The Italian club is in its first final since winning the competition in 2010 under Jose Mourinho, having done little in the Champions League in the intervening years.
In Martinez, it has a player who lifted football's biggest prize when Argentina won the World Cup in Qatar in December.
“I think these are the two major finals a footballer can play. The only thing that changes is the shirt,” he said Friday. “You know you’ve made it to the very end thanks to all the work you’ve done and how hard you’ve worked throughout the year. If you want to really achieve that goal, the very last step you must be ready to take.”
Should Inter upset the odds and win the Champions League, Martinez would emulate another Argentine striker, Diego Militao, who was part of that team from 2010.
“I do feel responsibility. I have been at Inter for five years. We are all ready for the final,” he added. “You have got to have the will to win and lift that trophy. We’ve brought that spirit that has been missing for a while. We have the opportunity to win a trophy that has been missing for several years.”
Haaland represents the biggest threat to Inter after establishing himself as probably the most lethal striker in the world this season.
His 36 Premier League goals have set a new benchmark in England’s top division.
He became the fastest and youngest player to reach 30 Champions League goals and equaled Lionel Messi and Luiz Adriano’s feat of scoring five times in one match in the competition.
Then there have been the trophies — winning the league title and FA Cup to leave City one game away from a treble that would emulate Manchester United’s achievement in 1999.
“If you’d said this scenario before the season I wouldn’t think of it,” Haaland said. “But, again, when you look at the team, how close they’ve been with every single trophy every single season it’s not like it’s been not possible.
“We have been believing in ourselves ever since I came here. Just one game left, I don’t know what more to say.”
Inter may be the underdog, but it is looking to win its fourth European Cup.
It has also tasted very recent success having won the Italian league in 2021, back-to-back Italian Cups in 2022 and 2023, and the Italian Super Cup this season.
“We are certainly hoping to take the trophy back to Milan,” Martinez said. “In terms of whether it is a duty or dream, it is certainly a huge dream, but it is very difficult to fulfil. We worked so hard to get to this point and are one step away.”
Inter’s coach Simone Inzaghi accepts City goes into the match as the favorite, describing it as “probably the best team in the world.”
But the message to his players is that they are worthy finalists.
“We know it’s going to be a huge opportunity to write a page of Inter history,” he said. “We know how tough it is going to be. We know we can put all our efforts together. We reached final tomorrow and together we can try to make history.”
City is trying to do likewise, with the Champions League the one trophy that has been out of reach as Pep Guardiola’s team has dominated England.
It advanced to the final in 2021, only to be shocked by a Chelsea team that it finished 19 points ahead of that season in the league.
It looked on course to reach last year’s final, but conceded two goals in stoppage time against Real Madrid before going out through extra time.
This year, City’s route to Istanbul has been serene, despite being drawn against Bayern Munich and Madrid in the knockout rounds.
Two of Europe’s giants were swept aside in ruthless fashion, with Madrid beaten 4-0 in the second leg of the semifinals at Etihad Stadium.
“You can see the character of a team when you arrive to these stages,” said City defender Ruben Dias. “You can see whether a team wants to move forward or starts hiding... we’ve been showing up every time and tomorrow will be no different. It’s another time for all of us to step up to the occasion.”