In the coming weeks, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have the opportunity to become the first English club since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United to win the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup, all in the same season.
The treble is on the line and with it, the right to be considered one of the greatest sides ever.
Blue or Red? Pep or Sir Alex? Brilliance in Barcelona or idolatry in Istanbul? Supporters of either club will obviously believe their own achievement is superior but how do the clubs compare with City on the brink of matching United’s treble glory of 1999?
If the Citizens go on to add two more trophies to the league title that has already been secured, they will deserve to be lauded as the best, but so too does the Man United team that dominated, 24 years previous.
Two supremely talented sides, led by iconic coaches and leaders, who stood out from the rest with their achievements.
If only we could have Sir Alex v Pep going toe to toe with each other on the sidelines, as their teams do battle on the pitch, if only!
Both managers belong to different eras but were very much the leaders of their teams and widely respected and lauded by their contemporaries.
It is one thing to win a Premier League title, but to go again and again, the assert dominance and sustain it is what sets the great apart from the good. These two men belong firmly to the former.
Sir Alex was the ultimate firebrand man-manager with his feared ‘hairdryer treatment’ whilst Pep oozes intensity and the pursuit of perfection with his attention to detail and pursuit of perfection.
Squads and Style
In a head-to-head, the respective lineups would look something like this and what an exciting prospect it would be. Can you imagine this?
Man United, 4-4-2 – Schmeichel. G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin. Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs. Cole, Yorke.
Man City, 3-2-4-1 – Ederson. Walker, Dias, Akanji. Stones, Rodri. Bernardo, De Bruyne, Gundogan, Grealish, Haaland.
Old school 4-4-2 against the transformative 3-2-4-1. It is very much a case of then and now when comparing two very contrasting styles.
On reflection, United had the upper hand in terms of youth development and producing their own players, but they still did spend plenty in relative terms to complement the likes of Giggs, Beckham, Scholes and Neville. In the signings of Yorke and Stam, we can see how the club would pluck the best from England and abroad to ensure that they continued to move forward.
As for City, it has been an empire built on endless transfer funds. Yes, there is more to it than a blank cheque spending spree but it certainly helps. Only Phil Foden stands out as an academy product who has been good enough to make an impact and he may not start the upcoming finals.
Guardiola’s all-conquering, dominating style is based on tactical and technical excellence, on an individual and collective basis. They are simply better than the rest, faster, more powerful, skillful, consistent, and more. They are relentless.
Back in the late 1990s, Utd could certainly play football, but their trademark was the never say die spirit and the sheer will to win. ‘Fergie time’ was coined as his team would often secure a winner in the final stages of the game, in added time but that showed their desire.
The iconic 1999 Champions League semi-final win over Juventus when they recovered from a two-goal deficit in the second leg in Turin exemplified this. The stunning success, against the odds (and the clock) in the final against Bayern Munich created a legacy of its own.
They did it domestically too, and in the same season. Time and again.
The Story of Success
In the Premier League, this campaign has been City’s fifth title in six years. They are dominant but so too were United in the 90’s with the treble reflecting their fifth league crown in seven seasons.
It is probably a tougher league to win now than it was then, but not as competitive as it used to be. Effectively, there are now three blocs within the English top-flight with those competing to win it as well as the Champions League spots. There are those pushing for Europe in and around mid-table and then the battle to avoid the drop.
It just seems more pronounced than what it used to be.
The Champions League is a holy grail in itself and the one trophy that Guardiola and City sorely crave. They made a statement with the semi-final victory over Real Madrid and now they have to go and follow it up.
Back in ‘99, United made their mark in history with how it was won, particularly against Juventus and Bayern Munich. It literally was the story of legends.
The FA Cup is the lesser achievement, as part of the treble, but still one that very much matters.
Both sides are and were no strangers to a Wembley win and in a nice twist of fate, it is Erik ten Hag’s United team of today who can prevent a City treble, when the clubs meet in the showpiece final on Saturday 03 June.
For Guardiola, it would be the perfect precursor to a date with destiny in Istanbul. This is a Manchester derby with more than a trophy on the line.
On their own merits, on the pitch, there is very little to separate these two excellent football teams but off the pitch, there is the spectre of the geopolitical wealth from the Middle East that underpins the empire and the rebirth of Manchester City.
UEFA and Premier League charges, for alleged financial doping, cast a shadow over the blue side of Manchester but those legal wranglings will take years to unfold.
Their greatest challenge is to go and secure the treble so that they can truly be considered as one of the very best, next to Manchester United’s achievement of 1999.