Saturday, June 10, 2023

Pennant Fever

For a long time, Manchester City was overshadowed by Manchester United, which served as the Mayfield to City's Tilghman.  But in August 2008, City were purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group, and since then conditions have changed.  In 2011-12, City won the English Premier League, taking its first League crown since 1968.  And in February 2016, City hired Pep Guardiola, who had previously managed Barcelona and Bayern Munich.  Under Guardiola, who may be the best manager in the world, City has come to dominate English football.  Here's what City have done in recent years:

2017-18:  1st place in the EPL
2018-19:  1st place in the EPL, Winners of the F.A. Cup
2019-20:  2d place in the EPL, Semi-finalists in the F.A. Cup
2020-21:  1st place in the EPL, Semi-finalists in the F.A. Cup
2021-22:  1st place in the EPL, Semi-finalists in the F.A. Cup
2022-23:  1st place in the EPL, Winners of the F.A. Cup

So that's five league titles and two doubles (league and cup titles) in the last six seasons.

However, the European Champions' League had consistently evaded City.  Year after year, they had suffered heartbreak, and mainly against English clubs:

2017-18:  Lost in the quarterfinals, 5-1 on aggregate to Liverpool (ENG)
2018-19:  Lost in the quarterfinals, 4-4 on aggregate (3-1 on away goals) to Tottenham Hotspur (ENG)
2019-20:  Lost in the quarterfinals, 3-1 on aggregate to Lyon (FRA)
2020-21:  Lost in the final, 1-0 to Chelsea (ENG)

Last year was incredibly painful.  City reached the semi-final, where it drew Real Madrid (ESP).  After winning the first leg 4-3, City led 1-0 in the second leg -- and 5-3 on aggregate -- going into the 90th minute in Madrid.  Real Madrid then scored a goal in the 90th minute, and another goal in injury time, to tie the semi-final at 5-all and force extra time.  Five minutes into injury time, Real Madrid scored on a penalty, and City was eliminated 6-5.

I have to admit that after all these tough losses, I had become convinced that City could never go all the way.  But this year, City finally would not be denied:

In the group stages, City won its group with a record of 4-0-2, and outscored its opponents 14-2.

In the round of 16, City crushed RB Leipzig (GER) 8-1 on aggregate.

In the quarter-finals, City pounded Bayern Munich (GER) 4-1 on aggregate.

That set up another semi-final against Real Madrid.  This time, City held Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw in the first leg in Madrid.  In the second leg, played in Manchester, City buried Real Madrid 4-0 in one of the greatest performances any English club has ever shown in the Champions League.

That left the final, played today in Istanbul against Inter Milan (ITA).  As you would expect from a great Italian club, Inter Milan is a tremendous defensive club, and City was never going to get its offense going in this type of game.  But City finally broke through with a goal in the 68th minute, and then they held off wave after wave of attacks.  Finally, after 90 minutes of game time, and 5 1/2 minutes of injury time, the final whistle blew, and City had won the Champions League 1 to 0.  It was their first Champions League title in history.

Now only three British clubs have ever won the "treble" -- the league title, the cup title, and the European championship -- in the same season.

The first was the Celtic (SCO) team of 1966-67, which won the Scottish Football League, the Scottish F.A. Cup, and the European Cup.  That team is remembered in much the same spirit as how we remember the Packers of the 1960s.  

The second was the Manchester United team of 1998-99, which is remembered in much the same way we recall the Jimmy Johnson Cowboy teams of the 1990s.

And now we have the Manchester City team of 2022-23.  After they humiliated Real Madrid in the semi-finals, serious observers in England said that this year's City team is the greatest club in the history of English soccer, and I think they are probably right.

So ends one of the longest (thanks to the World Cup) and most dramatic seasons in recent soccer history.  For the English Premier League, the new season will begin on August 12.

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