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Alex Ferguson was wrong – City are now football’s dominant force

Legendary manager once said City ‘could buy every player in the world, but can they buy a team, can they buy a Man United spirit?’ The answer is yes
Alex Ferguson may have been wrong about Manchester City. Photo: Jacob King

Alex Ferguson may have been wrong about Manchester City. Photo: Jacob King

Jamie Carragher

Eleven years ago, then Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson gave a fearless and provocative response to the claim his city rivals might dominate English and European football.

“They could buy every player in the world, but can they buy a team, can they buy a Manchester United spirit?” he said of Manchester City’s emerging threat.

“The problem with having all that money is that you buy indiscriminately. Sunderland, in the 1950s, the Bank of England team – relegated. I wouldn’t wish relegation on City.”

It’s an understatement to say those comments – made at the start of the ‘noisy neighbours’ rivalry – have not aged well for the Old Trafford legend.

Should they add the Carabao Cup and FA Cup to the formality of the Premier League title, City will have won nine of the last 12 domestic trophies. That’s an incredible return which should be a source of pride and elation for all involved. It should also worry everyone else.

Jurgen Klopp’s two-year bid to halt City aside, successfully leading Liverpool to the Premier League last season, no-one has come close to challenging Pep Guardiola’s relentless march to supremacy. Take Liverpool out of the equation, and it has been a miserable effort by others to keep pace in a title race for the past four seasons.

And most of City’s rivals look ill-equipped to stop them next year, too. English football may have to adjust to the idea of a monopoly unless the leading contenders get their act together this summer and go into the next campaign with realistic aspirations of winning the league, rather than hiding behind a top-four finish as representing ‘progress’.

City’s wealth may guarantee they are always competing for every major trophy – or at least should do. That is not an excuse for those struggling or failing to do so. There are enough other clubs spending a fortune to prove that cash on its own does not assure a title bid, let alone silverware.

Ferguson’s interview in 2010 is informative because he said exactly that, speaking about the importance of the right investments while making the point that it did not matter what City did and who they bought as long as his own club focused on being the best they could be.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a challenge. We have to do what we’re good at and hope it’s good enough,” he said.

For their own reasons, United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea have been nowhere near good enough, falling away and trying to work their way back through what have become annual transitional campaigns. Their problems are independent of City’s excellence. We will see how far adrift Liverpool really are when they have their central defenders back at the start of next season.

For now, only Chelsea look capable of preventing further Wembley success for Guardiola. Thomas Tuchel’s team are also the most likely to deny City the prize they crave most in 2021; the Champions League. This weekend’s FA Cup semi-final has the making of a dress rehearsal for what we might see in Turkey next month.

I really like the look of Chelsea’s squad. They have the characteristics to hurt City, boasting the second-best defensive record in England which has improved since Tuchel took over. This weekend’s fixture will offer a clue as to whether Chelsea can get nearer to City in the Premier League next season, too. On paper, they have a talented enough pool to do so and Tuchel has made an excellent start.

But as a team and starting XI completely at ease with their system, City are as advanced as any in world football. So good are they, they will be disappointed if they do not add the European Cup to their league title.

I look at Manchester City’s players heading towards the season’s climax with a combination of admiration, envy, and a little familiarity.

Aside from the trophies, they might replicate a feat achieved only once before in English football – one that requires the type of physical and mental stamina which goes well beyond a club’s bank balance. They may complete a European trophy-winning season having played every conceivable domestic and Uefa fixture.

Twenty years ago this month, I experienced the most enjoyable spell of my footballing career when Liverpool became the first English club to do that, culminating with nine wins in a final 10 dramatic matches over 34 days.

We completed our own cup treble – adding the League Cup and FA Cup to the Uefa Cup – and just as importantly in the context of the club’s history in 2001, qualified for the Champions League for the first time.

Amid all the silverware, the ability to successfully emerge from a 63-game campaign was daunting, exhausting and thrilling. For City to get through all 62 of their games and win every competition would be truly amazing given the extra demands of this season, when aside from the international breaks City have played at least twice a week for four months.

City did what no English side has ever done when winning a domestic treble in 2019. That side was even better than their current one. But the City of 2021 will go beyond that and what any English club has ever managed if they win a quadruple, eclipsing United’s Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup treble of 1999.

The closer it gets, the more likely it becomes as they start to see the finishing post in each tournament.

Wednesday’s win over Borussia Dortmund felt like a massive hurdle, especially overcoming a 1-0 first-half deficit in Germany. Over two games, they also enjoyed a touch of what United possessed in 1999, and we had in 2001. Luck at the right time.

It is impossible to win every game during a season’s climax without the ball bouncing your way at critical moments. That adds to the drama, making the triumph more memorable. City have needed no such fortune to retake the title, but no cup competition can be won without a couple of sliding-doors moments. City will need more situations such as the contentious decision to disallow Jude Bellingham’s first-leg goal, which would have made a massive difference to the balance of the quarter-final. Uncannily, the better teams are, the luckier they often get.

That’s a consequence of the trait Ferguson referenced in 2010 and something the Liverpool team of 2001 had in abundance – team spirit. You can’t put any price tag on that. Ferguson was right to say as much, but wrong when questioning whether City would ever possess that of his United side. He will have changed many of his opinions on the club since then.

Suffice to say, relegation does not look like it will ever be a problem for what might mischievously be described as the First Abu Dhabi Bank club.

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