By the time the Champions League final begins in about 10 days, Manchester City could be one step away from a historic treble that would be the zenith of Pep Guardiola’s eventful term with the Citizens.
Victory in Saturday’s FA Cup final, a week before their date with Inter Milan in Europe’s premier club competition, would keep alive the blue half of Manchester’s hopes of emulating Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering treble team of 1998/1999.
Manchester United: The benchmark
The Red Devil’s historic treble in 98/99 has long been celebrated as one of the most inspiring achievements in modern football. That team is heralded as one of the best teams ever, along with Pep Guardiola’s dominant Barcelona and Real Madrid under the tutelage of Zinedine Zidane.
Some twenty years on the 98/99 United team is still spoken of, almost reverentially, by the English media. It was the one yardstick with which Alex Ferguson could regularly berate his noisy neighbors as the Arab money filtered through Maine Road, leaving even the once mighty Manchester United in their wake.
Pep Guardiola: The kingmaker
While Roberto Mancini ushered in a new era for Man City in 2012 by snatching the Premier League title most dramatically, the arrival of Pep Guardiola has proven to be a masterstroke for the club and its fans.
Pep came to England with a swagger as arguably the best manager in the world. He took Barcelona to the treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League in his first season in charge in 2008/2009. The Spanish tactician followed that with a LaLiga/Champions League double in 2011, en route to 14 major honors during his time with the Blaugrana.
Germany was his next port of call, where three Bundesliga titles and two domestic cups with Bayern Munich cemented his legacy as one of the most influential coaches of the modern era.
Guardiola joined City in 2016 and was a serial winner with five Premier League titles and several domestic cups, leading them to their maiden Champions League final in 2021, where they came up short against Chelsea.
Champions League: A major stumbling block for Manchester City
Despite this stellar record, Pep could not shake off the numerous failures in the Champions League with both the Bavarian giants and Manchester City. After frustrating seasons of near misses and the heartbreak of 2021, this current City vintage looks like a team destined to take him back to the promised land of Champions League glory.
Their recent demolition of Real Madrid, the holders and 14 times champions, in the semifinals reflects a team peaking at the right time, led by a manager who knows no fear: a confidence borne out of redressing the failures of the past.
The Haaland Effect
Erling Haaland’s debut season at Manchester City has been nothing short of sensational. His 60 million-euro fee now seems a basement bargain for a player who has shattered scoring records for fun this season.
With an astonishing 52 goals in all competitions, including 36 Premier League in 35 games and 12 goals in the Champions League, Haaland has silenced his critics, providing Guardiola with the missing link in his quest for European domination.
The 22-year-old Norwegian has proven to be a model player both on and off the field. And at his age, he could be the fulcrum of a Manchester City dynasty.
The Rejuvenation of Jack Grealish
Jack Grealish cut a frustrated figure after his first season at City. The 100 million-pound transfer fee meant expectations were high for the England winger, yet he flattered to deceive in their Premier League title-winning run.
Patience was running thin for a mercurial player whose ability was never questioned. Instead, it was his penchant for partying and late nights and a Beckham-esque presence in fashion and high society, culminating in Grealish becoming the face of Gucci. It seemed at odds with Pep’s team-first mentality, leaving many to speculate that the writing was on the wall for the talented winger.
However, he returned from the World Cup with purpose and a renewed hunger for the game. Grealish was immense for Manchester City in both the league and Europe, none more so than a dominant display against Liverpool, tearing Trent Alexander-Arnold to shreds.
One could argue that had it not been for Haaland’s incredible season, Grealish would be the Citizens’ best player this season – no mean feat considering the depth of talent in the squad.
It is a remarkable turnaround for a player who will be integral in their push for immortality in the coming weeks.
Guardiola and his charges are within touching distance of football folklore. However, don’t be surprised if the FA Cup proves to be their banana skin. Manchester United will be stoic in trying to preserve Sir Alex’s treble record and keep their noisy neighbors at bay.
Nothing stokes the fires like a derby with so much on the line.