The first concrete evidence of what Manchester City will be remembered for in this 2018-19 season has landed on the mat. The League Cup, much loved by City supporters of all ages, somewhat maligned by others. In itself, a simple stamp of confirmation that what Pep Guardiola’s men have done so far this season has been good enough to beat the competition, but - in the way it was hauled in - much more than just that.
Awful strain that it was, the win over Chelsea might just be the easy part. What comes next might require a little more of, well, almost everything City have to offer.
What comes next is increasing pressure, a hill of injuries to adjust to and tired legs and brains that sometimes whisper “we can do this” and other times mutter “I can’t manage anymore”. City’s task to emulate last season’s incredible march always seemed, in one sense, utterly impossible. The league campaign – so perfect in its numbers and in its abandoned accomplishment – could never be repeated. Not the inflated numbers at least. Liverpool are making a grand fist of turning this year’s title race into a proper rush for the line. You get the feeling the last thing City need at this point is the prospect of a sprint finish after playing so many games since August. A gentle stroll through April while conserving energy for the two remaining cups would be just dandy.
But a sprint is how it looks. Gird up your loins and stretch those tired muscles one more time. City’s titles have almost all been won in the chase however, making last season’s romp a stand-out curiosity.
The mind goes back to those sun-drenched May days when Sergio Aguero brought the house down and, two years later, when Liverpool were squeezed out. Even the mighty 1968 League Championship win came in a nail-biting thriller on the very last day at St James’ Park, Newcastle.
City have never been a club to do things the easy way, witness the raft of last day of the season agonies they have put us all through. In that respect those watching from the sidelines are ready for almost anything and that could be a good thing.
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Schalke and Chelsea have proved that City can win while playing below par, while being stretched to the limit and being closed down, chased and harried. The cost has been enormous, however, with damage to Aymeric Laporte, City's best defender this season, and Fernandinho, City’s most important midfielder. With David Silva far from his best and Kevin de Bruyne struggling to find his old form after injury, Guardiola’s side will do well to maintain momentum in the coming cluttered weeks of desperate all-or-nothing football. The gaze now falls optimistically on Danilo, on Ilkay Gundogan and the fast-blossoming Alex Zinchenko, then it falls on Real Madrid and Bayern and Barcelona.
Tired legs must be coaxed into yet more thrusting action, against – in the FA Cup and Champions League – the best that are left and – in the league – against teams that themselves will be desperate to grab their own goals, be they survival, European qualification or simply stretching a leg in the way of someone else’s giddy progress.
The chatter about a quadruple fills the air with tiny, scolding bubbles. Can it be done? Is it right to even consider it? The very thought makes you cringe, cross and uncross your legs like someone is asking you questions that are too uncomfortable to answer. So many pitfalls, so many barriers, so many reasons it cannot happen. As each argument against it tumbles in trying circumstances - a two goal blast from nowhere to save the game at the death in Gelsenkirchen, an hour and a half slog against Chelsea to scrape through on the narrowness of a "top bins" Raheem Sterling penalty – the possibility gains a little oxygen. Then you realise there could, there must, be another 20 games if that particular dream is to take realistic shape.
That is right where the mysticism and the motivation of the best managers the sport has to offer will start to come into play.
“I don’t want to see excuses about tiredness, fixtures, schedules or how many games. That is nothing. When you have the dream to fight until the end, to retain the title, the power and the energy to give you that, it is higher than any excuses you can find.” - Pep Guardiola
Looking at the spent faces of victory, the rolled down socks and discarded boots, you could sense the toll these games are now taking. But there is no greater fillip than victory. That allied to the news that Liverpool’s venture to Old Trafford had revealed a rival low on energy and unwilling (or unable) to showcase that special magic that marks out potential title winners. Instead of grinding a telling victory on difficult terrain, they sat solid and helpless and played out a chunky, unappetising draw instead.
It was just what Chelsea would be busy doing a couple of hundred miles further south at Wembley an hour or so later. City, however, have the nous and the character to prevail in these circumstances. They have a team of winners, a group whose minds are stoically fixed on the target and who do not seem to take easily to the contemplation of lesser alternatives. If Schalke had been a brilliantly unexpected power surge, the attrition of Wembley ticked all the other boxes: steadfast belief, solidity, sang-froid and the energy and nous to get over that finishing line in one piece.
After the pomp and circumstance, the countless flourishes of poetic beauty last season, you get the feeling Manchester City’s 2019 vintage is made of even sterner stuff. Whether it can withstand the battering that spring will bring is another matter, but right now there is enough oxygen for everyone.
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