Erling Haaland is fit and scoring again. That is ominous. Kevin De Bruyne is fit and assisting again. That is ominous. John Stones, the tactical key to last season’s treble, was on the pitch at the same time as both De Bruyne and Haaland since the Champions League final again on Saturday. That is ominous. Manchester City went top of the table, albeit only for two-and-a-half hours. They have won 10 consecutive games in all competitions and are the only side with a 100 per cent record in 2024 which, given their track record of going on long runs of victories in the second half of seasons, is doubly ominous. They beat Everton with a mediocre performance. Which, given how much better their best can be, is ominous.
An adjective has surrounded City of late: ominous. It has been the default description. Everything, it seems, has been interpreted as an omen of future glory; perhaps correctly, certainly using the prism of the past, the quality of players, the track record of the manager. “Champions again,” has been the usual chorus from the stands. City have started to sound like self-fulfilling prophecy and not in the way they were when Joe Royle coined the word ‘Cityitis’ to sum up their self-destructive streak.
Now the harm can come to others. City can intimidate opponents with their presence: Arsenal seemed beaten by the spectre of City in the title race last season as well as the reality of them and the devastating double act of De Bruyne and Haaland. Now it is worth noting that, while City are favourites, Liverpool are actually league leaders, with a summit meeting at Anfield, City’s bogey ground, still to come.
It is a reason why, amid the rush to anoint City as champions and treble winners again, it is not as formulaic as that. Pep Guardiola can rail against the perception of inevitability. It strips his side of credit for their achievements, gives the impression victories are simple, that everything is ordained and not accomplished.
It is not. Guardiola said on Friday he is “99.99 per cent” sure City will not do the treble again; the near-impossibility of the feat meant only Manchester United had done it before his team. The vagaries of knockout football and the competitiveness of the Premier League have rendered it a tougher feat than is acknowledged in easy, lazy predictions of dominance.
April has proved City’s undoing before but, to Guardiola’s probable annoyance, treble talk is likely to persist for a while longer now. “From my experience, the first leg of the last 16 was always tricky,” he said, but City have a capacity to get one of the seemingly simpler draws in the first knockout stage of the Champions League; now the widespread assumption is that a tie against FC Copenhagen is a formality.
A procession to glory thereafter may not be, though. Thus far, City have not actually beaten many of the European elite this season: none of the Premier League’s top five in the league; in Europe, their major scalp to date is RB Leipzig, currently fifth in the Bundesliga.
A status as favourites owes more to last season’s demolitions of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and to the reunion of De Bruyne and Haaland. Between them, they scored three and assisted four of the nine goals City scored over those 360 minutes. Yet the Norwegian’s second goal on Saturday was the first De Bruyne has assisted for him since last April’s visit to Bayern. “Kevin needs runners,” said Guardiola; Haaland is perhaps the fastest.
They have been separated for most of this season, with the midfielder out for five months and the forward for two. “With them we are stronger,” said Guardiola. “We don’t have to be clever men to realise that.” The worrying element for everyone else is how well they have returned. “If you’re out for five or six months normally it takes you a little bit of time,” said defender Nathan Ake; De Bruyne’s first six matches of his comeback have brought six direct involvements in goals. Guardiola spoke it taking time to get Haaland’s “huge body” back up to speed. He hit his stride against Everton. “Out of nothing, he can score,” added Ake.
If there was a more prosaic cast list in their absence, there has been a prosaic feel to many a City performance this season, Saturday’s included. And yet they have clawed their way back towards the top quicker than Ake expected, aided by those 10 wins.
A slide in autumn never looked terminal to their hopes. For Guardiola, the sense was that the treble winners still had the right mentality. “It is the way they train, the way they behave and the way they run,” he explained. “When that happens, always the team is alive.”
Now they are alive and kicking on. “At the start of the league you’ll never know if you’re going to end up in this position,” Ake said. Yet he added “most of us have been here before” and most others expected them to be in contention now. It is a way in which their every deed is deemed ominous.