Four Months of Bliss

Head-On-The Block Predictions

  • Pep Guardiola is about to be found out…again
  • Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane are Manchester City’s best hopes
  • Bayern v. Manchester City would be the ultimate plum tie

The World Cup final takes place in Moscow on July 15. From this perspective, on March 15, the possibilities remain tantalising. Over the next four months, we will be treated to a veritable feast of football – the business stage of the Champions League, where everyone gets found out, and the World Cup finals themselves, where, if the local hooligans have their way, everyone gets knocked out. Basically, we’re about to luxuriate in a period of rare footballing bliss – four months that will change history.

On July 15, we will have a definitive result in the compelling Lionel Messi – Cristiano Ronaldo battle for supremacy – definitive in the sense that there will be an “accepted” wisdom on who was the greatest player of this generation. Naturally, I have no interest in the herd view and have long anointed Messi as the maestro. The only question in my mind is whether he has the personality to surpass Diego Maradona as the best player of all time. But I digress. There will be plenty of time to expound on that.

How will Joachim Löw be viewed by the night of July 15? Will he be eyeing up the Bayern job? Will he be the only man in modern football history to coach a side to consecutive World Cup wins? Or will he have been hounded from his job having undermined his legacy?

What of Neymar? Will he continue to have more in common with Justin Bieber than Jairzinho? Will Gareth Southgate be an unlikely sage of the English game, heralded for eliminating the world champions in an epic quarter final before bravely losing to Brazil? Or will he be doing a pizza advert? Will Roberto Martinez be appointed the new manager of Barcelona after a swashbuckling summer that maximises the rich seam of Belgian talent at his disposal? Again, we can speculate about all of this in good time, but the point remains: the next four months will change everything.

We don’t even have to wait until July for some of the answers to similarly pressing questions. Can Real Madrid emulate Ajax, Bayern, and themselves (of course) by winning three European Cups in a row? Or will super Pep prove his never-ending genius by taking his financially-doped middle-eastern plaything to an historic Champions League victory?

Tomorrow’s Champions League quarter-final draw will reveal some clues. The Guardiola-as-genius treatise has been found out four years in a row in the only club competition that truly measures greatness. It’s all very well winning domestic trophies, but if you are to be elevated to the pantheon of greats, well, you probably need to do better than get hammered in three consecutive semi-finals by three different Spanish clubs. And then lose to Monaco. Three of these crippling blows were sustained while managing a genuine superclub – indeed, one that Guardiola took over as supreme champions of Europe.

The man he succeeded, the prematurely retired Jupp Heynckes, is back for an encore. It wouldn’t be the greatest surprise in the world if he won it again. One thing’s for sure, he won’t overthink things. He’ll also spare us the hypocrisy of campaigning for the release of jailed politicians while remaining gainfully employed by people who incarcerate politicians as a matter of course. For these reasons and more, a Manchester City v. Bayern Munich pairing would be the ultimate plum in the quarter-final draw.

For all of City’s fabulous domestic dominance, I suspect that they’ll be found out as soon as they meet one of Bayern, Barcelona, Juventus, or Real Madrid. The big boys have seen it all before and won’t be fazed by Pep’s reputation. Barcelona and Real Madrid have eliminated him in recent years, and Bayern now know that there is plenty of life after him. Just as there was before him.

City are not without hope. Kevin de Bruyne is one of the best players in world football, a wonderfully intelligent and technically excellent conductor of the orchestra. He’s one of those ultra rare players with the technical ability to execute the visions of his febrile imagination. How he plays will dictate much, because plenty of City’s well-remunerated “stars” are, frankly, suspect. Without mentioning names (oh, alright then), the likes of John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi, Kyle Walker – basically the entire defence – are iffy at this level. In England, that desert of native creativity, David Silva is held up as a star. Yet, his Champions League record doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Now’s his chance to put that right. And when things go wrong, there’s no point lamenting an injury to Vincent Kompany. As always with the Belgian, that’s merely a matter of time. City should have replaced him years ago.

One City player who is genuinely excellent, however, is Leroy Sane. I first saw him in the flesh at the Berlin Olympiastadion a few years ago when he scored a wondrous goal for Schalke against Hertha. Despite sitting amongst the home fans, I suddenly lost myself in the brilliance of the moment and clapped vigorously as the ball crossed the goal line, utterly forgetting my surroundings as I swooned in utter immersion, enraptured by the skill I had just witnessed.

The test of a great goal or match is whether or not it can make you forget everything else that’s going on in your life. Sane passed that test then – and how. His talent is obvious. But we’ll find a lot out about Leroy Sane in the next four months. Will he inspire City to unprecedented glory and will he be a star of the World Cup with Germany? Or will he, like most of the players and teams currently aspiring to success over the next few months, be found out?

This is why the knockout stages of the Champions League and World Cup are such compelling viewing. The frauds (previously championed by the press) get found out, myths are exploded, and reputations are refined. It’s no good scoring a hat-trick at Burnley and going missing in Barcelona. The truly great do it when it really matters, when the stakes are highest and when there is most to lose…and gain. Most footballers are massively overrated, utterly unworthy of the glory showered on them by a compromised media desperate to provide bread and circuses to the masses to ensure the sustainability of their own subscriptions. A select few are worthy of your affection, admiration, even love. These are the players who do it when the chips are down, when the opposition is formidable, and when the prizes are in sight. We’ll find out who these people are by July 15.

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