Manchester City’s Rodri talks in-depth to AS ahead of the Champions League final against Inter Milan
Rodri is a key player in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. The midfielder spoke about beating Madrid, City’s style of play, Haaland, and what it would mean to win the Champions League and the treble.
In Istanbul, the call to prayer from the mosques blends with anticipation over the Champions League final, played tomorrow between Manchester City and Inter Milan at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, with kick-off at 3 p.m. ET. Rodri (Madrid, 1996, full name: Rodrigo Hernández Cascante) the only Spanish starter in the match, spoke to AS just hours before the clash. For many, he is currently the best defensive midfielder in the world.
Do you see yourself lifting the Champions League trophy?
It’s a dream, obviously, but I don’t think about that too much, just as I don’t think about that any time we have the chance to win another title. I think about how the game will be, the desire to play it… Hopefully, it goes well. Hopefully.
Against Madrid, you were a brick wall, the best player of the tie.
I had many doubts about how I would be physically. This year has been very demanding for me in terms of playing time. However, right now I’m feeling at my best. I’m happy with my recovery work, the team’s level, how I felt on the pitch both in the first and second leg. The team performed superbly.
Did you need to make a statement in a match like that: Champions League semifinals and against Madrid?
Yes. In the world of football we live in, great players have to show up at the big moments. I’ve seen that in the players I look up to. If I aspire to be a great player one day, I know that I have to perform in these types of moments. Sometimes it can be a bit unfair if you do a lot of decent things in the season, but not on the key days, but these games are the vital ones. I’ve learned that over these years.
Guardiola said that without your contribution it wouldn’t have been possible to come this far, even putting you above Haaland…
Imagine! To have your work recognized is amazing in general, but when it’s your coach, who lives alongside you every day and knows what you’ve done, it fills me with pride. But I want more. I want to keep growing. I consider myself very young still, though then you see people like Haaland, who is 22, and...
To improve on the way you played against Madrid would be difficult…
That day we played with so much feeling. Not only because we outplayed them, but also because of what had happened the other time against them. My feeling is that we didn’t give them half a chance... not even half. Nothing! It was a day where we ran for absolutely every ball. And everything went perfectly. And when you put so much enthusiasm into it, and with our style of football, we are a very difficult team to beat.
The first half was especially epic, right?
We were a storm in the first half: emotional, spirited, full of football and creating chances. Although I remember the first three or four chances didn’t go in: a save from the goalkeeper, another one that just didn’t go in… You start to have thoughts running through your head and you ask yourself: “Again?”. But the team kept going and going, and got the reward. When the match ended, we said to each other: “We’ve done it!”.
Was that a weight off your shoulders?
Getting to the final and winning a two-legged semifinal is always a big deal, but considering where we came from, and playing against the best team in the competition in recent years... it was impressive.
Have you watched the match again?
I don’t remember, probably yes. The one I didn’t want to see was last year’s match at the Bernabéu. Sometimes, depending on how things went, I really don’t feel like watching them again.
What’s your approach to the final?
We’re good, happy about how things are going at this stage of the season. We’re also happy about the last title we won (the FA Cup against Manchester United). And throughout this week, we’ve been really excited because we really want to play the final.
Are you obsessed with the Treble? (Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League)
It would be amazing, and it would be historic. In England, only Manchester United, our city rivals, have done it. It wouldn’t be just winning the Champions League, winning a treble is really impressive. We’re taking it one step at a time. We still have to win this title [the Champions League] for which we’ve fought so hard. We’re coming into the final at our best moment. This year we’ve changed some things in our playing style. Key players have joined the team and adjustments had to be made. The footballing level was there, but not so much the consistency of results. We’ve managed to become very solid, both in defense and attack.
Does being favorites hinder you?
We’ve never won the Champions League, and it’s the second time we’ve reached the final. The finals are won by the team that performs the best.
What have you learned from the final two years ago where you lost to Chelsea 1-0
We learned a lot, just as we did from the semifinal we lost the year before. I hope those defeats have served us well. This is a much more solid and mature group in the crucial moments of games. I always say that to win a final you have to have been in finals and semifinals before, and this group has been doing it for a while.
You were a substitute in that Porto final against Chelsea…
It’s two different moments in my career. A first final is always difficult for anyone. That day I didn’t get to play, and the team lost. Now we’re coming into the final in a different scenario, with high spirits.
This year the team has changed its style of play. Stones’ hybrid role (full-back in defense, midfielder going forward) adds a lot of options.
Guardiola has always had the ability to find a new variant that improves the team. We’ve brought in two players who have had a big impact on our playing style, Haaland and Julián Álvarez. They’re two strikers to be reckoned with. We haven’t had that these past years. From there, Pep devised a structure still based on our footballing philosophy. The only way to get another player was to bring them in from elsewhere: he did it with the full-backs, now with central defenders. Stones can do what I do and at the same time, he broadens the range of possibilities. The move has given us a big jump in quality.
What’s Haaland like?
To start with, he’s 22 years old, which people sometimes forget, and his concerns are those of a 22-year-old guy. But he’s super normal. He has the character and the mental and physical ability to always be on top form. That allows him to maintain his composure on the pitch. Plus, he’s a winner, he’s so when playing with his ‘I’m coming for you’ and ‘I’m back’... He reminds me a bit of what we saw with Cristiano and Messi. That hunger: “I want another goal, and another, and another”. The best part about that is not the goals, it’s the spirit that emanates from him. Having players of that style makes a difference.
And he allows you, for example, to play long balls. Like against Arsenal for the first goal, in the league.
It gives you different options, hence the tactical variations I mentioned earlier. We’re aiming not to lose what we had and to benefit from what we’ve got now. This season we’ve shown that we can score from set pieces, on counterattacks, in possession of the ball... We began winning the FA Cup from a goal kick! We’ve grown in every area.
For you, does having the ability to score give you an extra edge? Last year you scored seven goals in the Premier League, this year you scored a wonder goal against Bayern in the Champions...
Maresca (Guardiola’s second-in-command), Lillo (former assistant coach), Pep... they’ve always encouraged me to go forward. I know my role and that I can’t overextend too much, but now with Stones, there’s a bit more freedom, an option for cover. During the Madrid game, they closed down the sides, to shut down De Bruyne and Gündogan, which left space in the middle to take a shot. That’s how Kevin’s (de Bruyne) goal came. It’s important to push forward, because I have the capacity to score and assist.
Busquets has stepped aside, Casemiro is over thirty, and many people see you as the best midfielder in the world. Do you see it that way?
I’ve always aspired to try to be the best, but it’s up to other people to say and think that. There’s a lot of players. I continue on my path, and my ambition is to try to be better. I’ve had coaches with whom it’s easy to grow, and I’ve never lost the excitement of continuing to do so.
Does Guardiola need to win this Champions League to end the debates or, is there in fact no debate about him anymore?
Credit comes from winning, that’s just how football is. Doing things right has to be in order to win. We know what we’re doing and the work that’s behind it. In football, then, you can win or lose, but to be valued by people you have to win. That’s what we’re working on.
Since finding out that Inter are your opponents in the final, Pep keeps repeating: “Beware of the Italians...”.
We know what they’re like: very competitive, smart and they also have a way of playing that’s going to require a lot of patience and concentration from us. They have different weapons to ours. We need to know how to play the match.