Do not be fooled by the narrative, which suggests Manchester City are on the cusp of a dominant era after Pep Guardiola claimed his first trophy at the club thanks to Sunday’s 3-0 Carabao Cup final victory over Arsenal.
It is often said that the first trophy is most significant, but while this may have been the one to break Guardiola’s duck at the Etihad Stadium after a barren first season at the club, it was actually the sixth major trophy won by City this decade. If we are talking about a team of the decade in the English game, the Premier League champions-elect are in the pole position.
Since the 2010-11 season, City and Chelsea each have won six trophies, with Manchester United claiming five. Arsenal, who surrendered so meekly at Wembley to leave Arsene Wenger still waiting for his first League Cup triumph, have lifted the FA Cup three times; Tottenham have not earned any silverware.
City have undeniably been a club that wins, and expects to win, major trophies since they claimed the FA Cup under Roberto Mancini in 2011. That ended a 36-year trophy drought for a club, which was synonymous with failure and calamity until Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan completed his takeover in September 2008.
City have won two Premier League titles during this decade — the same number as United and Chelsea — but should have been even more successful, considering the investment in the club’s squad, as well as the post-Sir Alex Ferguson decline at Old Trafford.
Arsenal have not challenged and neither, over the long term anyway, have Liverpool, so City should have put their foot down and accelerated away from the pack long before now. Guardiola’s first trophy must act as the springboard for sustained success and glory in the biggest competitions.
European success continues to elude, and with United and Chelsea having added major continental trophies to their honours’ list during recent years, success there will be City’s next target. Indeed, their determination to conquer Europe, with the greatest of respect to the League Cup, is precisely why Guardiola was hired as manager in 2016.
So when it comes to surveying the bigger picture, this latest success will be regarded merely as the continuation of a winning decade and, it is hoped, the start of something more substantial. Simply put, if the Guardiola era is to be regarded as a success, then City must end the decade well clear of United, Chelsea and the rest in terms of trophies won.
What’s more, they will have to win the Champions League, or at the very least reach at least one final, to establish themselves as English football’s dominant force. But that is now within City’s grasp; having suffered in the giant shadow cast by their neighbours at Old Trafford for so long, they no longer fight for the spotlight.
On and off the pitch, City can punch their weight against United, and it is not an insignificant achievement to have to finished above their rivals in every Premier League season since Ferguson retired in May 2013. But City and Guardiola want more than mere local bragging rights.
It is a club built for domination in every field, and given the Premier League, where City sit 13 points clear at the top of the table having played one game fewer than their closest rivals, is almost certainly in the bag as trophy No. 7 this decade, the Champions League will matter even more.
Can Guardiola’s men win in Kiev on May 26? City already have a place in the quarterfinals as good as secured after a 4-0 win the Round of 16 first leg win against FC Basel in Switzerland earlier this month, so it is all about who they face in the last eight and beyond.
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are no longer same formidable outfits that won European Cups this decade, but all three would offer a tough obstacle. Similarly, domestic battles against the likes of Spurs, United, Chelsea or Liverpool, in particular, will pose their own challenges for Guardiola’s men.
But what is clear is that City have all the tools to win European club football’s biggest prize.
“We have had a good season already, and now we need to keep going,” said Kevin De Bruyne after the Carabao Cup final. “We have this one in the bag and now we have to maintain the same focus in the Premier League and the Champions League.”
De Bruyne is right: It really is a case of one down, two to go. Beyond that, the substance of the trophies matter most for City, who have to win the next two to prove they are the team of the decade and potentially beyond.