At Manchester City, an Elusive Prize Comes Back Into Focus
MUNICH — Suddenly, quietly, improbably inconspicuously, Manchester City finds itself within touching distance once more of the thing it does not like to talk about but is never far from its thoughts, the one prize that has eluded Pep Guardiola at City, the ultimate victory that has long felt like the inevitable conclusion of all that the club has done, all that it has spent, all that it has wanted.
It has never been an easy subject to broach with Guardiola, the team’s head coach. How he reacts tends to depend on his mood. Sometimes, it makes him irascible, sometimes weary. There are occasions when he plays it for laughs, and moments when he goes for playful indulgence, like a man talking to a dog, as if the very thought of one of the most expensive and ambitious sports-political projects of all time gobbling up trophies is risible.
“Forget it, forget it,” he said last month. “When you start to talk about that, you start to lose competitions and drop competitions.”
Familiarity lies at the root of his contempt, of course. He has been asked about the possibility of winning “The Treble” — when spoken, the phrase is always capitalized — in every single one of his seasons at City, with the possible exception of his fact-finding first. For a while, convention dictated it not be mentioned until at least springtime. These days it is broached when, jet-lagged, he first steps off the plane on some far-flung preseason tour.
If anything, though, it is a curious and admittedly somewhat contorted form of flattery. The treble — victories in the league, the F.A. Cup and the Champions League — is held up as an almost mythical achievement in English soccer. It stands as the ultimate seal of greatness: It has, after all, only been achieved once, though Manchester United mentions it rarely, and only when prompted.
That it seems to fit so readily in his purview is not just testament to soccer’s rapid-onset ossification into immutable hierarchies and to the irresistible power of money, but to the scale of dominion that Guardiola has established at Manchester City. He has already won the Premier League. He has retained it. Twice. He has broken the division’s points record. He has done a clean sweep of domestic honors. What other worlds are there left to conquer?
(He might also like to direct a gentle admonishment in the general direction of his employer. In 2019, when City won the league and both domestic cups, Ferran Soriano, the club’s chief executive, commanded that the team be hailed as the “Fourmidables.” It would, he believed, thus overshadow United’s treble. Guardiola’s staff pointed out that including the Community Shield, an exhibition game taken seriously only by the winner, might be technically correct but had the effect of cheapening the achievement. They were overruled.)
This season, though, has brought a minor — but telling — shift. City’s quest to clear that final hurdle has bubbled along in the background, as it always does, but it has hardly been front and center.
Partly, that has to do with a deference to logic: It would be a little bit gauche, after all, to discuss one team winning every competition in sight when another is several points clear at the top of the Premier League. And partly it has to do with the distracting presence of Erling Haaland, who has spent much of the year forcing people to wonder if there is a number big enough to capture his eventual goals tally.
All of a sudden, though, it is the tail end of April and the stars once more seem to have aligned. If Manchester City wins all of its games, it will claim the Premier League trophy for the third year in a row: another item ticked off Guardiola’s bucket list. It is in the F.A. Cup semifinals, and an overwhelming favorite to reach the final. And here on Wednesday in Munich, City filled in the last administrative duty before taking its place in the final four of the Champions League.
Beating Bayern Munich handsomely eight days earlier had made this game seem like a formality, though in reality it did not always quite feel like that. There were moments, particularly in the first half, when Kingsley Coman or Leroy Sané were tearing at City’s flanks and it was possible, just about, to believe that it might not be over.
But then Erling Haaland scored, and it was. Bayern equalized, late on, through a penalty by Joshua Kimmich, but by that stage the Allianz Arena had long since given up hope.
Magnanimously, Guardiola suggested that the aggregate score of 4-1 did not reflect the true nature of the home-and-home — probably correctly — but then these games, as he said, are defined by details. And the details, in this case, were that Bayern could not take its chances. City, by contrast, grasped those that came its way with a cold certainty, an unforgiving inevitability.
It is a useful trait to have, of course, as the season enters its final, defining stretch. The challenges that remain, the obstacles between the club and the achievement that represents the absolute, unavoidable culmination of Abu Dhabi’s vision for soccer, are hardly trifles.
Guardiola’s team still has to play, and beat, Arsenal, the Premier League leader. Manchester United or Brighton might await in the F.A. Cup final. Most ominously, Real Madrid lurks in the semifinals of the Champions League, just as it did last year. Nobody at City will need reminding how that ended. Guardiola regards those sorts of fixtures as a “coin flip.” He knows as well as anyone that nobody calls it better than Real Madrid.
But then City has not so much as dropped a point in the Premier League since February. In March and April, it has so far scored 31 goals and conceded only four. It has the look of a team gathering momentum, a blend of speed and force and purpose. It has the feel of a storm brewing. All of a sudden, almost surreptitiously, City has crept closer to the summit of its own grand ambitions than it has ever been.
Quite what that means for soccer as a whole is a subject that will, rightly, come under scrutiny in the coming weeks, as Guardiola steers his side on those last few steps, the most delicate, the most treacherous of all. For him, though, as for his team and for the people who took a club and turned it into something else entirely, spinning it out of whole, golden cloth, this is where the path has always led. All that is left, now, is to get there.