Even before we get to the footballing context, there’s something delicious and decadent about the word treble. It’s the drink beyond the “woah, you need a big drink” drink. It’s indulgent. Perhaps even a little greedy.
So too the treble-winning football season. The English elite go into each season with a list of four possible trophies: the league title, something in Europe, and then the FA Cup and the League Cup. Coming away with three of them is extremely selfish. It is also extremely difficult, which is why it happens so rarely.
This weekend, Manchester City have the chance to complete an as-yet-unprecedented variation: the domestic treble of League Cup, league title, and FA Cup. Manchester United came close in 1994, losing the League Cup final to Aston Villa, and again in 2009, when they were rudely ejected from the FA Cup semi-finals by David Moyes’ Everton. (Whatever happened to him?)
But City are the first team to make it all the way to the final with the other two trophies safely tucked away, and they are heavy, heavy favourites to beat Watford.
The domestic treble probably isn’t as prestigious as “The Treble”, © United 1999: the league and FA Cup supplemented with the Champions League. That’s a bigger trophy than the League Cup in every possible sense except “number of handles”. And you can be sure that Pep Guardiola would swap his League Cup winner’s medal for a shot at this season’s Champions League final without even pausing to think.
But nevertheless, the domestic treble comes with a potent symbolism. It is the most complete statement of one-nation dominance. Best in the league? Check. Best in the knockouts? Best in that other weird knockout competition that mostly happens in the evening and sometimes has two legs for no real reason? Check, checkity, check.
And so it makes sense that this City side are odds-on to complete it. Because, well, they’ve kind of completed English football. Last season they got 100 points; this season they finished a point ahead of a ridiculously good Liverpool side. A Liverpool side that had to make themselves into a ruthless and unstoppable winning machine, had to put together stretches of form that defied precedent, and that still weren’t quite good enough.
In truth, City’s biggest vulnerabilities appear to be, in descending order: inexplicable brainfades in European knockout games; UEFA’s financial investigations department; the vicissitudes of international relations; singing silly songs and then botching their apologies. Only one of those is a footballing weaknesses, and in truth feels more like a weirdness, while all are tough for their rivals to exploit. Jordan Henderson should not invade Abu Dhabi.
Odd things happen in one-off games, of course. City were nearly bounced out of the FA Cup by Swansea City of the Championship, and were given a helping hand by the lack of VAR at the Liberty Stadium. And had Kepa Arrizabalaga chosen to obey his manager back in February, perhaps this endeavour would have fallen at the first. Looking ahead to the final, Watford are somewhere between 11-1 and 14-1 with the bookmakers, which definitely counts as “technically not impossible”.
But the two teams inhabit different worlds: ten league places and 48 points different, to be precise. That’s a bigger gap than separated City from Wigan Athletic back in 2013, when City finished second and Wigan were relegated in 18th. A Watford win could well be a bigger shock.
In a sense, to complete something is to end it. It’s done. And it’s one of the odd paradoxes of the modern City project: they are so good, and so rich, and so ominously well put together, that their notable achievements feels less like the heroic outcome of a sporting struggle, and more like another brutal assertion of hegemony.
None of this changes the fact that the team is beautiful to watch from moment to moment, of course. But the project is frankly terrifying. Guardiola is drinking trebles, and there’s none left for anybody else.