As one day ended and another began, the summit was reached before midnight. It didn’t come as Manchester City had dreamed, the spectacular culmination of some miraculous, dramatic move, but in an earthly, more human way: nothing more than a slight slip, a technical error, opened up and immediately punished.
The result was the same. A decade and a half after City bought the Lightning Strike through an investment vehicle that had almost certainly nothing to do with the Abu Dhabi government, the most ambitious football project ever seen was thanks to a swift, decisive strike. Rhodri’s right foot.
Manchester City had already won the Premier League and the FA Cup this season. Now it is also the champion of Europe. A prize that had eluded it for so long, one that both the club’s beneficiaries and its coach Pep Guardiola craved more than any other, was finally captured with a 1-0 win over Inter Milan.
Perhaps, given the scale of the investment – and the current suggestion that City may not have played by the same rules as everyone else – it was inevitable. Odds were this would happen sooner or later. But it had to happen so City could win the treble, becoming only the second English club to achieve the feat, which was the perfect gift.
In years to come, of course, the manner in which it was achieved will be all but forgotten. It must have slipped City’s mind once the whistle blew and its players erupted in joy. It was, of course, not a memorable final, or – by City’s own lofty standards – a remarkable performance.
But it was totally fitting. Inter Milan arrived in Istanbul expected to be little more than a sacrificial lamb, casually brushed aside by a City team that, in every imaginable way, appeared to be at its peak.
City have won the Premier League in five of the last six years. Inter are the third best team in Italy. City have Erling Holland, who seems to have been sent from the future. Inter’s squad is old, even by Serie A’s gerontocratic standards. This final was, by most accounts, a mismatch, a procession, a hopeful one.
It didn’t happen that way. Inter have cheated City in every way imaginable since their experience. It drenched in free kicks. It lasted on hand. It indulged in small, petty mistakes and robbed the game of its rhythm. Francesco Acerbi, a centre-back with a rich beard, pulled Holland away once the ball was in his orbit.
What the Italian side lacks in star power, organizational sophistication, it more than makes up for in grit and grisly, gnarl and nous. Those are all virtues in football and, of course, the building blocks of all great teams.
However, in the end, it was not enough. In an instant, Inter’s resistance crumbled, and with it the last bastion of European football’s traditional aristocracy, its grand old houses. Manchester City, as they always go, have kicked down the door. In the midst of its celebrations, one day ended and another began.