LONDON — Two down, one to go. Manchester City are now 90 minutes from a historic treble.
They needed just 12 seconds of the FA Cup final against Manchester United to take a giant stride toward their place in the record books. Ilkay Gundogan‘s opening goal on 12 seconds, the fastest in FA Cup final history, was cancelled out by a first-half Bruno Fernandes penalty, but the City’s captain’s second goal — a weak effort from outside the 18-yard box that United goalkeeper David de Gea should have saved — was enough to see off Erik ten Hag’s team for a 2-1 victory that leaves Pep Guardiola’s side needing to beat Inter Milan in next Saturday’s Champions League final to become only the second English team to do the treble.
The first? United, back in 1999. Despite the challenge — the necessity — to be a roadblock in City’s path to matching their unique achievement, the red side of Manchester failed to secure their predecessors’ glorious legacy.
United’s tactics boiled down to little more than hit and hope. They gave it a go, with the odd long-range effort, but that kind of approach is never going to work against this City team.
Inter will need to have a better game plan, and better players, to deny City in Istanbul next week. There already appears to be an air of inevitability about the European Cup being dressed in sky blue ribbons, though, just as the Premier League trophy and FA Cup have been this season.
“We can now talk about the treble,” Guardiola said after the match. “Of course we still have to win the Champions League, but we performed so well for our city and our fans.
“We are in a position we will probably never be in again.”
There are many reasons for that sense of City closing in on part three of their trophy trilogy: Guardiola, striker Erling Haaland (who was unusually quiet at Wembley) and the midfield strength provided by Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne and Rodri. The simple truth about City, though, is that they know how to win, regardless of the opponent in front of them or the challenge they pose.
Want to take City on? Try it and find yourself ripped apart as Real Madrid were in their 4-0 Champions League semifinal second-leg demolition last month.
Maybe you sit deep and try to frustrate, but that only invites City to mount wave after wave of attacks, passing opponents into submission and to defeat.
United tried another approach. Ten Hag deployed Fred to man-mark De Bruyne and hope to nullify City’s driving force, but that just left Gundogan and Rodri to enjoy acres of midfield space, with auxiliary midfielder John Stones also giving United a problem they couldn’t fix.
When United managed to get a foothold in the game halfway through the first half and bring a sense of chaos with Fernandes and their forwards attempting to stretch the City defence, it was like a journeyman boxer throwing aimless punches in the hope of landing a big blow.
United just tired themselves out, though, and as soon as City regained the lead, there was never any real sense of them conceding again. United tried the sporadic flurries once more, with substitute Alejandro Garnacho injecting some pace and purpose on the hour mark, but City always had them at arm’s length.
City have lost just once in their past 27 games, and that was a 1-0 defeat at Brentford on the final day of the Premier League season, when the title had already been secured and Guardiola rested key players in preparation for the FA Cup and Champions League finals.
They are a team in peerless form and haven’t just beaten all their rivals but inflicted some heavy defeats on them, too. Arsenal, Liverpool and Madrid all have conceded four against City in recent weeks, so good luck to Inter.
United didn’t end up on the wrong side of a hammering, but they still lost, and that is the reality check they have to heed. Even when City don’t perform to their best, they still win, and teams like United should be able to find that something extra to beat them when the opportunity presents itself.
City are now so far ahead of the pack that the challenge is on the chasers to find a way to catch them. The only team finding a way right now are City, and you expect them to find a way against Inter next week.
History beckons. Yes, it has been done before, but the joy of doing the treble at the same time as denying United the opportunity to forever claim it as their own makes it even sweeter for City.
Two down, one to go.