Treble is on for Manchester City – but Liverpool and United cast shadow over the Pep Guardiola era

Pep Guardiola - Treble is on for Manchester City – but Liverpool and United cast shadow over the Pep Guardiola era - Getty Images/Robbie Jay Barratt
Pep Guardiola - Treble is on for Manchester City – but Liverpool and United cast shadow over the Pep Guardiola era - Getty Images/Robbie Jay Barratt

Manchester City are now so dominant they have normalised the idea of a Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup treble.

That is testimony to the standards Pep Guardiola has set at the top of English football. He has raised expectations at the climax of every campaign to such an extent he is under pressure to match or eclipse some of the most extraordinary achievements in this country’s sporting history. That means we are heading into a potentially defining weekend of a title race in which most of the focus is on Arsenal ending a 19-year wait to be champions, and City’s possible treble has barely been mentioned yet.

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Guardiola’s brilliance is to blame for this. The football world becomes blasé about the success of consistently excellent teams. When you have won successive Premier League titles, have multiple domestic cup wins on your CV and two Champions League wins (including a treble) at Barcelona, the pathways for creating more history and inviting superlatives become narrower. For most teams and coaches any major trophy in a season is a success. Not City or Guardiola. If City finish this season with only the FA Cup it will feel like a huge underachievement, especially in the campaign in which they added Erling Haaland.

Treble win a ‘game-changer’ for Ferguson and United

This is not entirely new territory. In the late 1990s, Manchester United players created a similar situation, dominating the domestic campaign to the point where being champions was the minimum expectation. They were desperate to add the trophy that had eluded their club since 1968. That all changed when they won the Champions League as part of the Treble and the ‘Sir’ was added to Alex Ferguson’s name. It was a game-changer for how Ferguson and his Old Trafford reign were judged.

No matter what Guardiola has won already at the Etihad, United can still use the 1999 season as a symbol of historic superiority, as do Liverpool with their reminder of winning six European Cups. Both clubs are also aware of how close City are getting to correcting the glaring absence from their honours board.


Guardiola recently acknowledged his City reign would be assessed on whether he brings the Champions League trophy to the Etihad. He seems to consider this an unfair and excessive demand. Sorry, but it is not.

‘Guardiola will not have delivered what he was lured to England to do until he lifts the European Cup’

With respect, Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini were Premier League winners with City. Every top manager in the world would have been a league champion if appointed City coach in the last 10 years. Guardiola was not hired just to replicate that success. His Abu Dhabi owners expected him to take City to a higher plane.

He has managed to do so with historic points totals and the domestic treble achieved in 2019, and by executing a football style superior to his predecessors.


But Guardiola will not have delivered what he was lured to England to do until he lifts the European Cup.

As in previous years, I think winning all three major trophies is a step too far for City. Not because they cannot do it – I would not bet against it – but because of how tough it is. There is a reason only one English club have ever won the three biggest major trophies in the same season. Flawless finishes need luck as well as skill.

The Manchester United side that did it inspired the club’s most memorable season, but their fans will acknowledge they were not the greatest of the Ferguson era. The side containing Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008 was superior.

To win the treble, United needed every bounce of the ball to go their way, even if it was ultimately deserved. There were unlikely comebacks such as that against Juventus in the Champions League semi-final, and Bayern Munich in the Barcelona final. They needed a last-minute penalty save against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final. The same can be said of the Liverpool side of 1984 which won a different treble of the league, Milk Cup and European Cup, the latter trophies won after a replay and penalty shoot-out respectively.


City could have won the Treble in 2019, losing out in a European tie they should have won against Tottenham Hotspur. Last year they were in an identical situation only to be beaten in the FA Cup semi-final after Guardiola played a weakened team against Liverpool, and then saw victory snatched in improbable circumstances by Real Madrid in the last four of the Champions League. There were regrets in those games. Those experiences should help in their attempt to take a treble bid deeper.

‘This year’s title race is 50-50 between City and Arsenal’

They are clear favourites for the FA Cup. If Sheffield United, Brighton or Manchester United beat them at Wembley it will be a shock.

The Champions League draw is as tough as it gets, however. Bayern Munich are never easy opponents even when taking into account recent instability at the German club, and Chelsea and Real Madrid await in the semi-finals. That side of the draw is a nightmare for all those involved.


This year’s Premier League title race is still 50-50 between City and Arsenal. That could be about to change. By the evening of Easter Sunday it will be clearer who is in the ascendancy.

Arsenal are looking to Liverpool for a favour on Saturday. Guardiola hopes for the same at Anfield next weekend.

If Arteta has preserved or enhanced an eight-point advantage after the next two games, albeit having played a game more, the title will be his to lose.

The run-ins are always about the big moments. Two-thirds of the season are about manoeuvring into a position where everything is possible. Once the March international break is over, you find out which sides have what it takes to get over the line.


‘Klopp desperate to put a dent in Guardiola’s treble bid’

United never lost a game after the international break in March, 1999 and there is every chance of City embarking on a similar run, which is what makes Saturday’s fixture so important. For all Liverpool’s difficulties this season, aside from when City and Arsenal play each other, they are the greatest challenge remaining in the league.

It was City who ended Liverpool’s quadruple hopes a year ago. Jürgen Klopp will be desperate to put a dent in Guardiola’s treble push this time.

This will not be how Klopp wanted or planned it, but the logic over the next two weeks is not dissimilar as in previous years for those wanting to celebrate in May. Whichever side beats Liverpool will feel like they are a step closer to winning the league. If City succeed and Arsenal do not, the treble talk will get louder.