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Champions League: Manchester City Bends the Story to Its Will


The writers of “Ted Lasso,” the acclaimed, sugar-sweet Apple TV comedy, never particularly apprehensive about being hidebound by reality. The world they created was, in any case, based on an inherently fantastical premise: an American coach with no knowledge of soccer succeeding within the tumult of the Premier League.

There would have been little point, then, in dismissing as too far-fetched the concept of a makeweight type of a team signing a proxy for Zlatan Ibrahimovic simply because its owner insulted him in the toilet, for instance, or a dog being killed by a wayward penalty kick, or West Ham being invited to participate in a worldwide super league.

It was notable, then, that there was one line the writers felt they may not cross. At the top of “Ted Lasso” — in all other features a determinedly romantic and uplifting show, an unabashed underdog story of empowerment and private growth and the overwhelming power of nice — Manchester City still wins the Premier League. Even in fiction, City can’t be dislodged.

City isn’t the villain, not likely, within the Lasso Cinematic Universe. That role goes, as an alternative, to a mix of conventional pondering and West Ham. Pep Guardiola even makes a cameo appearance within the show’s penultimate episode, offering a transient, distinctly Lassoist homily about winning being significantly less necessary than his players being good people.

Fairly than the bad guy, City serves as what the show’s eponymous hero refers to as his “white whale.” It functions because the series’ final level boss, a portrait of immutable sporting perfection, the one opponent that can’t be overcome by Lasso’s mustachioed, good-humored positivity.

Even when his team eventually defeats Guardiola, the victory proves futile. The next week, City goes and wins the league anyway. Lasso, like so many others, finds that second place is one of the best final result available to everyone else. “Such a shame,” one character tells Lasso within the show’s final scenes. “City are only too good.”

As a chunk of study, it is tough to top. This 12 months, as for five of the last six, City has been far too good for anyone else in England. Even when it sat eight points behind Arsenal within the Premier League table, the season drifting to its conclusion and the gap to the finish line winnowing, it felt like City’s title to lose.

From the center of February — when a wasteful draw at Nottingham Forest prompted a full and frank exchange of views among the many City players that Guardiola himself has described because the season’s pivotal moment — until the moment the title was won, City played 12 games within the Premier League and won all of them. In that three-month spell, as The Independent identified, it found itself behind in a match just once. The weird state of affairs was rectified after 10 minutes.

At the same time as it reeled in Arsenal, Guardiola’s team had a good grander prize in its sights. It was sailing easily through each the F.A. Cup and the Champions League, the prospect of a treble — victories within the league, the cup and in Europe — beginning to loom on the horizon.

The treble is, in reality, a distinctly English obsession. Manchester United’s 1999 squad is the one English team to have won all three major trophies in the identical season. Though the feat has change into significantly more common in recent times — Barcelona and Bayern Munich have each done it twice within the last decade and a half — it still functions as a trump card, the last word claim to greatness.

Its rarity is precious, to United greater than anyone else. That last week’s F.A. Cup final must have pitted the 2 Manchester clubs against one another felt fitting: Here was United’s likelihood to preserve the club’s honor, to guard its proudest accomplishment. It duly held out for roughly 12 seconds. The last vestige of English soccer’s resistance melted away. City, it turned out, was just too good.

Nowhere, though, has that been made more plain than within the Champions League. That it’s glory in Europe that Manchester City’s power brokers and paymasters — in addition to its coach — crave greater than anything has long since drifted into cliché.

Winning the Champions League has change into, if it has not all the time been, Manchester City’s animating force: its final rite of passage, its final challenge, its white whale. To some extent, it’s the aim of the entire project.

All the things — the fortunes spent on players, the state-of-the-art academy, the appointment of Guardiola, the worldwide network of clubs, the accusations of breaches of monetary regulations in each the Premier League and the Champions League, the legal battles, the danger that every little thing it achieves may yet be tainted, the distortion of the game’s entire landscape — can be vindicated, at the very least within the club’s own estimation, provided that and when City can call itself champion of Europe.

City has, then, attacked the Champions League with a singular determination this season. Bayern Munich was obliterated in the primary leg of the quarterfinals. Real Madrid held out for slightly longer within the semifinal, but was routed on the Etihad within the second leg, the reigning champion dismantled each surgically and brutally.

Guardiola made an exception for that victory against Real Madrid — it was, he conceded, among the many very finest of his tenure — but as a rule he tends toward the coy when presented with all the superlatives his team attracts. Habitually, he’ll all the time insist that his Barcelona team stays the best he has ever coached, just because it was spearheaded by Lionel Messi. His presence alone, Guardiola believes, routinely elevates any team.

Perhaps that’s true: Messi did lend Barcelona a wonder, a way of the breath being taken away, that no other player — not even Erling Haaland or Kevin De Bruyne — can hope to match. And yet, by the identical token, perhaps that makes the team Guardiola has crafted at City much more impressive. From a training perspective, it could be that that is his true masterpiece.

City has, after all, provided Guardiola with essentially the most conducive working environment in the game. He advantages not only from a budget that, effectively, allows him to acquire whichever players he wants, but from the type of complete, uniform institutional support that may only ever be an aspiration at most clubs.

That he has used it to supply a team that doesn’t have a single apparent flaw, though, is testament to no one but him. Manchester City, the 2023 edition, barely concedes probabilities, let alone goals. It scores from set pieces and counterattacks and long spells of possession. It could hurt opponents on the bottom and within the air.

It doesn’t, as previous versions may need done, have an ever so slight tendency toward profligacy, due to the seamless integration of Haaland into Guardiola’s side, something that — perhaps more in hope than expectation — many expected to be at the very least slightly little bit of a challenge when the Norwegian arrived last summer.

But that isn’t the switch that defines this vision of Manchester City; Guardiola’s most important contribution, this season, lies elsewhere.

Last summer, he was concerned, just slightly, about his resources at fullback, a key position in his system. Oleksandr Zinchenko had left. His alternative, Sergio Gómez, had initially been identified to the club as an investment for the long run. João Cancelo’s form was patchy and his attitude, at times, questionable.

And so Guardiola invented an answer. Fairly than asking one in all his fullbacks to step into midfield, as he had for the last 12 months or two, he gave the duty to a central defender, John Stones, and drafted in Nathan Aké and Manuel Akanji, two of the less distinguished members of his squad, to balance things out.

He explained the concept relatively briefly to his players; they’d just a few training sessions to attempt to iron out any kinks. After which, a few weeks later, they were trying it in a game. There have been one or two who felt it was a risk, however it proved price it: Stones, as much as Haaland, has emerged as City’s key player.

Greater than anything, it’s that change that has made City untouchable in England, and in Europe, because the turn of the 12 months. It has already delivered two trophies; only Inter Milan, now, stand in the way in which of a whole set.

It’s curious, then, that it also needs to — effectively — be one in all the main plotlines in the ultimate season of “Ted Lasso”: the coach has an epiphany, and every little thing clicks into place. That, after all, was a mere piece of fiction. Guardiola’s success is concrete, factual, real. Each have the identical ultimate conclusion, though. Ultimately, Manchester City wins.

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