Manchester City have 12 games left to make history and few would bet against the Treble being delivered, but Erling Haaland will need to finally turn up.
10) Arsenal bottle their way to victory
Lessons have not been learned. When Arsenal and Manchester City finally did the business in February after months of eye-lash fluttering and empty promises, the reaction was as resounding as the result. Pep Guardiola’s side temporarily rose to the summit on goal difference having played a game more, yet it was assumed that the wider impact of their victory would see the champions pull into the distance as the pretenders finally floundered.
Manchester City then drew their very next game against Nottingham Forest after leading, while Arsenal won a narrative-bending seven matches in a row at the precise moment their confidence was supposed to have been shattered.
Admirable as that response was, their recent wobble has been imperfectly timed to lead straight into the return fixture at the Etihad. Three successive draws for Arsenal has coincided with Manchester City reaching peak machine form to create a potent sense of inevitability. How fun it would be for those debates as to whether this Gunners stumble constitutes a proper bottling to be rendered moot by them just beating Guardiola and his players at the precise moment everyone just assumed the race had been run again.
9) Sean Dyche grasses on them
“I’m still quite confident,” said Paul Merson. “I think the fixtures will catch up with Man City. The one game you don’t want to play in between Real Madrid is Everton away. Sean Dyche is going to make it very difficult.”
Guardiola will surely echo similar sentiments about Everton being ‘so good, guys, so good’, but Dyche has lost their last 10 meetings in a row at an aggregate score of 34-1 – having never faced Erling Haaland – while the Toffees had lost 10 on the bounce against Manchester City before Frank Lampard rocked up with a job-saving draw at the Etihad on New Year’s Eve.
It probably isn’t “the one game” these Treble-chasers don’t want as the filling to a Real Madrid sandwich.
But it might not necessarily be straightforward. When Guardiola complained that “the pitch was so difficult because the grass was high, no water and everything was so slow” after a laboured 2-0 victory at Turf Moor in April 2022, Dyche growled back in support of his lawn, saying: “The standard they set is 30mm I think, you can ask the groundsman as I am not that interested. I think we are about 28mm so next game maybe we will grow it to 30mm so we are dead on! There is nothing in that.”
The receipt for criticising the preparation of Dyche’s worm-based lunch has been kept for over a year and could well be handed in at Goodison Park by an Everton side scrapping for their lives.
8) Real Madrid complete the hat-trick
It is likely, of course, that the Toffees instead fall on their swords as Haaland eats Ben Godfrey against a backdrop of Merseyside boos. But Everton might at least take enough chunks out of Manchester City for Real Madrid to take advantage.
This will be the third Champions League semi-final between the two sides, with Real Madrid winning the previous two in 2016 and 2022. For argument’s sake, let’s pretend Manchester City might score after, say, 93 seconds of the first leg before leading the tie as far as the 90th minute of the second. It’s purely hypothetical. Would never happen.
7) Brahim Diaz scores in a Champions League final defeat
The accepted wisdom is that whoever emerges from that semi-final victorious will go on to claim the trophy as their own. In the other side of the draw is a Derby della Madonnina pitting together two sides whose qualification for next season’s Champions League remains uncertain. Milan and Inter are 4th and 6th in Serie A respectively but have navigated unexpected routes to the last four of Europe’s premier competition.
Brahim Diaz wouldn’t mind facing either Manchester City or Real Madrid, having left the former for the latter in January 2019 with a weird anti-Man Utd clause inserted into his new contract. The Spaniard technically remains on the Bernabeu books but three years on loan with Milan have proven fruitful enough to suggest his future lies elsewhere.
Diaz scoring the only goal in the Champions League final against the team he left in search of more regular playing opportunities would be a lovely story arch. Even better is Diaz netting early before Divock Origi overshadows Haaland and becomes the eighth player to score in multiple Champions League finals with a late strike.
6) Romelu Lukaku scores the only goal in the Champions League final
Manchester City have already lost one Champions League final to a solitary goal from a Chelsea forward struggling under the weight of expectation and price tag. Kai Havertz walked so Romelu Lukaku could diligently run the channels, hold the ball up and be made a figure of ridicule for failing in the Premier League (in which only 19 other players have ever scored more than the Belgian’s 121 career goals).
Lukaku has already hinted at wanting to make his loan to the San Siro permanent again, regardless of how Chelsea’s managerial picture looks when it is finally completed this summer. Nine goals in 26 appearances represents a less productive stay at Inter than his first but two separate injury lay-offs have undermined the striker somewhat.
With a Europa League final goal for the Nerazzurri to his name already, Lukaku could score the only goal in the Champions League final to beat Manchester City and confound his critics once more. Better yet, do it while having a comically low number of touches. Failing that, let’s see just how muted Edin Dzeko’s celebration would be if he scored a stoppage-time winner.
"In a possible Champions League final, I would like to see Manchester City against Inter, they are not very good and Lukaku is not playing well at the moment." – Noel Gallagher pic.twitter.com/OQmO3kstt8
— Oasis Mania (@OasisMania) April 17, 2023
5) Erling Haaland gets found out
There he is, The Problem who Manchester City play better without. Thinks he’s good with his goals and his hair and his milk and his lasagne. Pathetic. Bet Haaland doesn’t get another Premier League goal this season and has to share the 38-game scoring record like the flop he is.
4) David Moyes beats a big team away
Plausibility is really being stretched now. In 71 attempts, David Moyes is yet to win a league game away to Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Man Utd. The Scot has beaten Manchester City and Spurs as a visiting manager in the Premier League, but not since 2010 and thus his trips to the Etihad and north London in this era have been characteristically unsuccessful.
West Ham’s visit to the champions will likely be a free hit by the time they turn up in early May. The Hammers are six points clear of relegation with a game in hand and a chasing pack trying to outdo each other in terms of glorious failure. The pressure will be off, that Paqueta-Rice midfield is cooking and Moyes will overcome his travel sickness with a statement victory.
3) Frank Lampard does the business
While we are in the realm of unlikely Arsenal saviours, it is worth mentioning Lampard and the impact Chelsea should yet have at either end of the Premier League table. Their quite legitimate relegation concerns could be fuelled in games against Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest, particularly when their other fixtures include Arsenal, both Manchester clubs and Newcastle.
Chelsea might have lost all four of his games in charge, scoring once to extend Lampard’s personal run of form over his last 18 matches as a manager to W1 D2 L15 F11 A35, but he masterminded a draw with Manchester City in December and he can sodding well do it again, as long as his players remember The Basics and he uses them in an actual coherent system and Guardiola and his entire squad is struck down with food poisoning and someone forgets to charge Haaland and Chelsea get a five-goal head start and Manchester City aren’t told that kick-off time has been moved until the 60th minute.
2) Man Utd protect their crowning achievement
It might fall on Man Utd to preserve their defining legacy and do what Newcastle couldn’t in 1999: derail a seemingly unstoppable side’s shot at history. If Manchester City navigate a route through Arsenal, Fulham, West Ham, Leeds, Everton, Chelsea, Brighton and Brentford in the Premier League, while simultaneously sidestepping the considerable European obstacle that is Real Madrid, the FA Cup final on June 3 becomes as monumental as a potential Champions League final seven days later.
Marcus Rashford was about 18 months old when Alex Ferguson oversaw one of English football’s most remarkable seasons, so will be seething with dormant rage at the idea of Manchester City emulating it. Jadon Sancho might want to prove a point to his former employers. Harry Maguire and Fred may want revenge for Guardiola ever pretending he wanted to sign them. Phil Jones can bow out by pocketing Haaland. Wout Weghorst is there. It’s on Erik and the boys at this stage.
1) Last resort
Manchester City do seem to have moved into that irresistible gear whereby none of the above factors will be enough to knock them off course. So failing each and every one of these points, just hit them with a few more FFP charges or something.