Manchester City, the treble, and the ghosts of 1999

Following Tuesday’s draw with Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final first leg, Manchester City remain a tantalising seven games away from winning the treble of Premier League, Champions League, and FA Cup.

Should they complete the feat, they would join Celtic, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Inter, and Bayern Munich in winning the domestic league, cup and continental crown in the same season.

Most alluringly, though, City would join their neighbours and rivals United in becoming only the second English club to win the treble.  Manchester United’s groundbreaking 1999 achievement remains a thing of folk legend within the English game, not least for the way in which it was achieved. Almost a quarter of a century later, City’s triumph – should it indeed happen – would no doubt be viewed quite differently.

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When Pep Guardiola replaced Manuel Pellegrini as City boss for the 2016/17 season, it was clear the Catalan was not hired to simply consolidate domestic success.   Following City’s 2018/19 domestic treble of Premier League, FA Cup, and League Cup, Guardiola spoke openly about the need for Champions League success:

I said before that I know we will be judged at the end on whether we win the Champions League. I know unless we do that it will not be enough. This comes with me. I know that. I arrive in Barcelona, we were lucky we won it two times in four years and the people expect I am something special that we have to win the Champions League and it’s still true. In this club, the points record and the domestic competitions is incredible, but the Champions League we don’t win quite often compared to the other ones because the teams are so good, the competition is so demanding but we want to win it.

That Guardiola is not blind to that need is obvious, as successive failures in the late stages of the tournament during his City tenure has increased the pressure not only on City, but also on their boss. Having won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011 with breathtaking victories against Manchester United in Rome and at Wembley respectively, it was seen as a given that Guardiola would go on to win the tournament again and again. Twelve years on from winning the second European title of his managerial career at Wembley with his peerless Barcelona side, Guardiola has yet to add a third.

Having quit Barcelona and taken a sabbatical in New York at the end of the 2011/12 season, Guardiola joined Bayern Munich. During his three seasons in the Bundesliga Guardiola’s Bayern were roundly thumped at the business end of the Champions League each time. Despite winning three consecutive league titles and two German cups, the Champions League eluded the Bavarians during Guardiola’s stay with the club. In an echo with the praise with which the English media now garland the 52 year-old, German observers, and particularly those close to Bayern, were equally smitten with Guardiola. In January 2015, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern’s chairman, observed:

Guardiola works incredibly hard. He is more German than the Germans when it comes to his work ethic. When the players have all long returned home and are relaxing on the sofa, Guardiola is still around and working on a masterplan for the next game.

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Joshua Kimmich, a youngster at Bayern when Guardiola arrived, recalled:

He spends a lot of time on the first touch and knowing what to do even before receiving the ball, you should know where your team-mates are because he wants you to see the whole pitch. For each opponent he has the perfect master plan, he has an incredible vision of football.

Yet still, a dozen years since his last triumph in Europe’s elite competition, Guardiola remains dogged by his inability to add another to his personal tally and the first for his club, Manchester City. In Guardiola’s time City have fallen to Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham, Lyon, Chelsea (in the final) and, last year, to Real Madrid in an epic semi-final. Momentum seems to point towards a City victory this year in Istanbul, although even here they will need to best the club in a semi-final second leg at The Etihad who believe the European Cup is their own personal property .

Alongside the momentum which has seen them ambush Arsenal in the Premier League, Guardiola seems to have shrugged off some of the perverse selections and tactical quirks which have beset him in previous years. The 2021 final against Chelsea in Porto was one such occasion where his ability to overthink came to the fore, as was the 2019 defeat to Tottenham in the quarter-final. Above all, Guardiola now has Erling Haaland, that most un-Pep like of players, who has been amalgamated into the system during the course of the season.

The year 1999 looms prominently in City’s quest. That season Joe Royle’s team dragged their way out of the third tier of English football while across town their illustrious and romantic neighbours  became the fourth team – and the first English side – to win the treble. Four days after United’s improbable European Cup win in Barcelona against Bayern Munich, City beat Gillingham at Wembley in the Second Division Play-Off Final on May 30. That both victories were such heart-stopping affairs added to the drama and the sense of a footballing city somehow forged in unlikely comebacks and one-off miracles.

When Manchester United achieved English football’s historic treble on 26 May 1999, it had come six years after winning the inaugural Premier League, and with a cast of promoted youth team players in the form of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, the Neville brothers and David Beckham, in addition to hired hands like Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, Ronny Johnsen, Jesper Blomqvist, Henning Berg, Teddy Sheringham, Dwight Yorke, and Andy Cole.

United had surmounted an initial Champions League group stage containing Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Brondby, scoring twenty goals in the process. A quarter-final victory over Inter set up an unforgettable semi-final with Juventus, before the final itself which, of course, fell on the 90th anniversary of Sir Matt Busby’s birth.

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Domestically, United tussled with Arsene Wenger’s slick Arsenal machine all season, only pipping them to the title on the last day of the season, while in the FA Cup United overcame Liverpool, Chelsea, and then Arsenal in an incredible semi-final which went to a replay. They were different times, of course, where United won the league with 79 points, just one point ahead of Arsenal. Moreover, although United lost only three games, they drew 13.

Although City and Guardiola have the treble within sight, the idea of a club achieving such a feat while at the same time being charged with more than one hundred breaches of the Premier League’s rules related to Financial Fair Play (FFP), sticks in the craw of many. As The Independent’s Miguel Delaney has stated “This case is about the far more serious allegations of fraud, dishonesty and a failure to accurately disclose information.”. Additionally, the seasoned football writer Jonathan Wilson has argued that any City success cannot be held in the same esteem as United’s glory 24 years ago.

Should City succeed in their quest, they will need to overcome their neighbours from across town when they both decamp to Wembley for the FA Cup final on June 3. The first FA Cup final between the noisy neighbours will mean much to both, of course, with United hoping to put in the performance of their lives to remain England’s one and only treble winners. Keep an eye on the results and get your Manchester United ticket quick if this much-anticipated match goes as expected.

The Author

Gareth Bland

From Derbyshire in the English Peak District, Gareth has also written for These Football Times and Cricket Web.

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