LONDON – In one corner of Wembley bathed in the bright sun, Kevin De Bruyne obediently rode up and down. He stretched out the hamstrings and leaves. He made sure his ankles were nice and loose and, with great care and attention, he made sure his laces were firm. He wanted everything to feel right when the call arrived.
He never did. With Manchester City two goals behind Liverpool, with his FA Cup final and his aspirations to reach the domestic and European threesome that escaped him, City manager Pep Guardiola did not invite De Bruyne, his outstanding playmaker. . The Belgian spent a few minutes in the sun, his gaze alternately shifting between the game taking place in front of him and Guardiola, then returning to his place in the shade.
Whether De Bruyne knew it or not, Guardiola never thought of anything else. He would, of course, have preferred to involve De Bruyne in the clash – or, indeed, to have him on the field from the start – but he honestly felt he couldn’t.
De Bruyne suffered a four-inch cut on his foot in City’s Champions League match against Atletico Madrid, Spain, on Wednesday. He was stitched up before returning to England and was prescribed a course of antibiotics to prevent infection. It was starting to heal. However, bringing him into the game three days later would risk reopening the wound. “Then we would lose him for more games,” Guardiola said. “In the end, I didn’t want to take any chances.”
It was not surprising that Guardiola was a little modest as to why, exactly, De Bruyne was sent to the out line to warm up, as he apparently had no intention of letting him into the game.
Maybe it was a psychological trick for the benefit of his teammates, a little boost as they tried to upgrade Jack Grealish’s goal in the second half and further reduce the three-goal advantage that Liverpool had established in the dominant first half. Or it may have been a small ploy to upset Guardiola’s Liverpool counterpart, Jürgen Klopp, to make him think about what he could do if De Bruyne, arguably the most creative English football player, suddenly enters the fray.
Either way, the fact that De Bruyne was reduced to the role of a theoretical threat was the biggest challenge these teams face in the next six weeks.
Both have been brought to the brink of not only fame but multiple fame – City are still hoping to win both the Premier League and the Champions League, Liverpool are now struggling to complete a series of four available trophies – thanks to the courage of their players and the brilliance of their coaches. because they are not only the most talented teams, but also the most intensive, the most intelligent and the most diligent.
However, what will take place from now until the end of the season will depend on endurance as well as ability. The line between absolute success and relative failure is as much a war of attrition as a battle of minds. What will define who will win the Premier League, and maybe the Champions League, will not be which team can jump the most, but which can go the deepest.
This is especially true for teams competing on multiple fronts. Both Guardiola and Klopp make great efforts to emphasize that looking too far can only lead to doom, that allowing thoughts to fly to the hypothetical can only serve to divert attention from the concrete and tangible.
But every choice of team, for both coaches, from now until the end of the season, must take into account not only the task ahead of us, but also the challenges that lie ahead.
Guardiola named De Bruyne at Wembley as a replacement even though he knew he would not play. He was joined on the list by Ilkay Gundogan and Aymeric Laporte, both of whom were in De Bruyne’s boat, left out of this match in hopes of being available for the next, against Brighton, in the Premier League, or not reducing their chances of in 10 days they play in the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid.
Strange as it may seem, for a team that has spent a decade or more building one of the two most expensive teams of all time – a team that includes the most expensive player in British history – City’s list of available players is not particularly “long”. as Guardiola said.
“It’s okay when everyone is in shape,” he said. The implication, of course, was that it would not be when injuries and fatigue occurred. While Guardiola prefers a concentrated, high-caliber team, for the City’s long-term vision club – not to mention its unrivaled resources – it’s more than a little surprising; it is hard to imagine that the situation will not change during the summer transition period.
Klopp took the opposite approach. Liverpool’s team, strengthened by the arrival of Luis Diaz in January and somewhat without problems due to injuries in recent months, is well equipped these days to be able to rest some of its key figures against Benfica in last week’s Champions League – a privilege for Guardiola. in the battle against Atletico Madrid, he was repulsed – he is still progressing. This, in turn, allowed him to appoint a team with full strength at Wembley on Saturday, a fact that was probably the deciding factor.
The catch, of course, is that Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and the rest of the team have just 72 hours before they face Manchester United in the Premier League, and the Merseyside derby against Everton is on the horizon. Their legs will be just a little tired for those games due to the effort against City.
In that sense, Klopp risked as much as Guardiola; after all, gluing is nothing less than gambling than twisting. This is the position that both coaches and both teams are in: weighing risks and rewards, hoping that they will call it correctly, knowing that everything is at stake.