Only Internazionale of Milan, the third best team in Italy this year, stand between Manchester City and what feels less like the jolly treble of yore and more the establishment of a dictatorship of sorts of domestic and European football.
This was the last roll of the dice from the English game to stop them. A chaotic Manchester United who conceded within 13 seconds – needless to say, a record for an FA Cup final – and then spent much of the game with that indignity firmly in their minds. Of course, from that point, with Sir Alex Ferguson barely back in his seat having carried the FA Cup onto the pitch, the thought was that it could have been much worse for the deposed kings of Manchester.
They did not go the way of Watford, beaten by six in the FA Cup final four years earlier by Pep Guardiola’s winning machine, but then it still felt like the divide was uncomfortable for them. No doubt Inter have a plan for all this. First on the list will be not to concede within the time it takes to tie a pair of shoelaces.
The strange thing was that for all Guardiola’s protests to the contrary, this was not a vintage City performance by their towering standards. Erling Haaland charged the United defence to create the space in behind but never looked as certain of scoring. Kevin De Bruyne was the first player substituted.
Guardiola also selected his second-choice goalkeeper, Stefan Ortega, and at times it felt like he was just trying to make it more interesting. The German is not at the level of Ederson, but then United never really got to test that theory.
It matters not because there is always someone else to step up for City. Once again it was the sparkling Ilkay Gundogan who scored volleys with his right foot and then his left foot. Remarkable to think he might yet leave this summer, but then renewal is what City have done best.
As the FA Cup winners came up for their medals, Ferguson as well as David Gill and one of the six Glazer siblings, the ponytailed Avram, were obliged to shake the hands of every beaming man in blue. A well-timed retirement ten years ago was supposed to have saved Ferguson from these kinds of horrors and yet he insists on putting himself through them on a regular basis. You wonder if he recognises a lot of his great sides in this one created by Abu Dhabi.
Ferguson’s treble team of 1999 conspired many times to throw away what became the club’s greatest-ever season – only always to rescue it at the death. This City team is different. They bear down on Istanbul and the Champions League final on Saturday like the most irresistible of forces. One of the opposition’s two first choice strikers is Edin Dzeko, whom they sold seven years ago. Inter may find a way. Yet seven days out it feels more like City are simply ironing out the last details of the season, rather than heading into the European game’s biggest final of all with the usual jeopardy.
This is the difference in the treble now, with the finely-grooved Guardiola method turbo-charged by the Abu Dhabi wealth. It is less of a curio built on tenacity, skill and good fortune and more of an obligation. Guardiola is even talking that way. “Everything will not be complete if we don’t win the Champions League,” he said afterwards, “so we have to do it.”
There are also those 115 Premier League charges which, of course, hang around the edges of this, the second league and FA Cup double of the Abu Dhabi era. Whether the Football Association might apply them itself whenever the legal battle is settled, who knows. Uefa has already lost that fight with City and will not attempt to replay it anytime soon. In the meantime, the trophies accumulate for Guardiola and his bosses in the Gulf.
As for United, the needle seems stuck on this takeover that drags inexorably into the summer. Erik ten Hag has salvaged a season that looked unlikely after that defeat to Brentford last August. He has sorted the spare parts of many different eras into something coherent and was at pains to point out that United have won 42 games this season, just one fewer than City. A cold kind of comfort when Ten Hag’s team were in the Europa League and not the Champions League but you can see his point.
This was a game that once again exposed the weaknesses in United. Big talk of clear-outs and reboots but the complications of financial fair play rules – and the salaries United pay – makes it more than difficult. United will have to avoid putting a foot wrong for years in their player trading. Did Ten Hag have a plan for a completed takeover and a plan for the alternative? “I only have one plan which is to improve this club and this team,” he said, “and I will fight for it and my ideas.”
The kind of bombastic answer designed to disguise the uncertainty all must feel – and who can blame him? He was obliged to defend David De Gea again for his part in the two Gundogan goals. The best player in the leanest era since the 1980s for United is coming to an end of his usefulness and there will be no easy decision. Yet it was the same for others. Jadon Sancho, Christian Eriksen – both in a FA Cup final but not really part of it.
United’s best player in the second half was the substitute Alejandro Garnacho who benefited from being thrust in among those tired legs and with little to consider other than going forward. Another substitute Scott McTominay had one headed off the line by the reliably excellent John Stones. Wout Weghorst was launched from the bench too. The difference in the benches was perhaps the most stark. Riyad Mahrez did not play a minute for City. He would have walked into United’s team.
Bruno Fernandes pulled United level with a penalty given for a handball from Jack Grealish spotted by the Var David Coote – or at least what passes for handball under the law now. The ball had dropped over his head, and as he turned to face Aaron Wan-Bissaka behind him it had brushed his fingers. Good fortune against City, however, is not enough
Manchester City (4-3-3): Ortega 6; Walker 7, Dias 7, Stones 8, Akanji 6; Rodrigo 7, Gundogan 9, De Bruyne 7; Silva 6, Haaland 6, Grealish 6.
Booked: Ortega, Rodrigo.
Goals: Gundogan 1, 51
Subs not used: Ederson (g), Phillips, Alvarez, Mahrez, Palmer, Lewis
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea 4; Wan-Bissaka 7, Victor Lindelof 6, Varane 6, Shaw 6; Casemiro 6, Fred 5; Fernandes 7, Eriksen 4, Sancho 5; Rashford 6. Subs: Garnacho 62 (Eriksen), Weghorst 78 (Sancho), McTominay 83 (Lindelof).
Booked: Wan-Bissaka, Fred.
Goal: Ferandes 33
Subs not used:Butland (g), Maguire, Malacia, Dalot, Weghorst, Pellistri, Elanga.
Referee: Paul Tierney (Lancashire)