Pep Guardiola has timed this Manchester City run to perfection. The best coach in the world, working with the strongest squad. The biggest losers from their late dash towards the treble appear to be Belgium.
Seven long months ago, in Qatar, Kevin De Bruyne looked like a beaten docket. Sluggish in possession, De Bruyne found time to remove any hope of Belgium’s golden generation winning the World Cup. That he said what he said – “No chance, we’re too old” – before the second group match against Morocco still beggars belief.
Belgium had beaten Canada in their opening game but given the chance to provide a glimmer of hope, the midfielder doubled down. “We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018.”
These words and subsequent performances led me to believe that De Bruyne was finished at the top level of the game. At just 31, the evidence seemed undeniable. How wrong I was. How infuriating it must be for Belgian supporters to see him play so magnificently for City since February.
De Bruyne may have been back in Manchester by December 2nd, rested and ready for some festive football in his hybrid number 10/second striker role behind Erling Haaland. It was this combination that destroyed Arsenal at the Ethiad stadium in April as De Bruyne feasted on two goals, both off Haaland assists, before his sumptuous cross found the head of John Stones.
Of course, De Bruyne is a mere cog in this Man City machine. I could wax lyrical about the transformation of Jack Grealish under Guardiola. The swashbuckling Aston Villa attacker of a few years ago has been turned into a technically proficient left-winger. In 18 months, Pep remoulded Grealish, his £100 million player, into precisely what City need.
On the other side there is Bernardo Silva, menacing and ruthlessly effective. Through the middle storms Ilkay Gündogan. The inverted midfield allows Stones to play as a holding midfielder who pops up in wide open spaces.
Add Haaland and you’d be forgiven for believing this is the peak of football as we know it. But Saturday is only the start for Man City under Abu Dhabi’s seemingly limitless financial engine.
All sense of football romanticism or a genuine chance of an upset could be erased in Istanbul as quickly as Gündogan’s first goal in last weekend’s FA Cup final.
Inter Milan have history on their side, and nothing else. Beating Bayern Munich at the Bernabéu in 2010 should go down as José Mourinho’s greatest managerial feat. The lowest of low blocks, Azzurri-style will presumably be employed by Simone Inzaghi’s team.
Inter are not without quality. Not enough to be considered one of the top 10 clubs in Europe but enough to finish second in a group behind Bayern, eliminating Barcelona before felling Benfica and Porto to set up a Milan derby in the semi-final.
The German wing back Robin Gosens has real quality, as does Edin Dzeko, but not enough to trouble a Man City side rebounding from an average performance in the Cup final.
They have little more than a fighter’s chance. Still, the closer we get to kick-off, the more I begin to believe that Inter can win. It’s human nature. What if, say, Henrikh Mkhitaryan returns to midfield alongside Marcelo Brozovic, the brilliant Croatian? And we have seen how City have struggled against two strikers this season.
Could Inter’s 3-5-2 system prompt Pep to tinker? At the very least Stones might return to his natural position at centre half. Lautaro Martínez, Romelu Lukaku or Dzeko possess enough of a goal threat between them. Imagine they score early or, better still, imagine they score late.
Maybe Belgian striker Lukaku will provide the most unlikely of redemption stories on Saturday. Imagine.
Being realistic, Real Madrid’s 2022 triumph feels like the dying kick of football’s old guard. Man City’s players will feel the pressure as the cherished treble comes into view. Remember how Man United won it in 1999? The European Cup should never come easy.
The weight of history could tell in the final – I don’t think it will, because the foreseeable future belongs to clubs that are owned by nation states based in the Arabian Gulf, countries so wealthy they can buy a sport that refuses to play ball with them.
In that sense, Saturday’s showpiece is a coronation for City Football Group. For Abu Dhabi too. The incoming world order appears to be Man City, Newcastle United, Paris Saint-Germain and potentially Man United, with Real Madrid or Barca or Liverpool nicking the odd trophy off squads that are fuelled by petrodollars.
Let’s say the achievements of Liverpool under Fenway Sports Group are replicated by another club. Let’s say that sports science or a coaching evolution surpasses what Guardiola has created on the blue half of Manchester.
No problem. City would react, within weeks, by recruiting or replicating those who found a chink in their armour. There is no escaping this sort of wealth. Which sporting superpower – Saudi Arabia, UAE or Qatar – will prevail? My money is on the one that just purchased a large chunk of the PGA.
Football has always been unfair, lopsided. The richest clubs have always fiercely protected their patch but there was always a shot at catching Liverpool, Man United or Arsenal cold, on any given day. There was always hope, even against Barcelona under Pep.
Leicester City, Premier League winners in 2016, was an anomaly that people will revisit to marvel at down through the decades. Their relegation this season was symbolically and literally the end of the upstart club. The rise of a club like Jack Walker’s Blackburn Rovers or Elton John’s Watford will not end with them squeezing into the Champions League spots ever again.
There is still a beauty to be found – like the clever efficiency of Brighton, Bournemouth and Brentford – but this is the era of financial doping and, like everyone else, I will be blinded by the beautiful game of Man City in Istanbul once the game kicks off. I am fully expecting them to step over the bodies just below the summit of their Everest.