Four years ago, just months before Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City, the club finished the 2007-2008 season in ninth place and 32 points behind Manchester United, that season's champions. After that, the final-table gap to United jumped to 40 points in 2009, then down to 18 in 2010 and it was nine last season. Win tonight and City could be could be level on points with United with three games to play.
It would be nice to say that City had fought their way to the top of the Premier League with a team of young players moulded by the club, mixed with astute signings and a manager who had cut his teeth in the lower divisions. Like Brian Clough's Derby County who were champions in 1972 in a decade when six different clubs won the league championship.
But the truth is that City team would not have been permitted to survive. As soon as they came within touching distance of the elite, the best players would have been picked off by bigger, richer clubs. The manager would have been lured away with promises of more money and better players. They would have lit up the league for a while and then, like the proverbial Mario Balotelli firework, fallen quickly.
The City that play United tonight are robust. The wages they pay mean that they are insured against losing players to the establishment teams, and there are none more established than United. Their Abu Dhabi owners have spent roughly £800m to get them there. These days, buying the players is no longer a guarantee of long-term success, you have to buttress your squad against the predators too.
Woody Allen once famously compared a relationship to a shark: "It has to move forward or it dies." In the Premier League, the stakes are higher. Moving forward is not enough, as the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa have found out. The quicker and the further you move forward, the more chance you have of being eaten. The only alternative is to develop a bloody sharp set of teeth and eat someone else first.
It will be interesting to see what fate befalls Newcastle United in the next 12 months, having become the latest club to challenge the elite for a Champions League place. Tottenham did so in the past and after their two fifth-place finishes in 2006 and 2007 they eventually lost Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov. Their second wave of success under Harry Redknapp means they will probably lose Luka Modric and Gareth Bale to bigger, richer clubs.
Would it be better for City to be playing United as almost-equals for the league title tonight without the help of a Middle East dynasty? Of course. Just as Chelsea would rather have had the success of the last nine years without the approximate £1bn that Roman Abramovich has invested. At both clubs the question of money is a sensitive subject, especially for the fans who know it will be forever used against them.
We would all like our clubs to succeed with a team made up of academy lads and a break-even budget. But City or Chelsea would never have caught the elite that way. They would have been picked off before they even reached the door. Chelsea qualified for the Champions League in the 2002-2003 season but they did so having gone to the brink of their resources. Their only signing that season was Enrique de Lucas. By the time City hit paydirt in 2008, it had become even harder to break into the top four.
In the modern order of European football, most leagues have their elites. Spanish football's hegemony is as entrenched as the one in Scotland. In Italy, Juventus have risen to the top again despite the Calciopoli scandal and their demotion to Serie B. Ajax lead in the Netherlands. In Portugal, Porto have dominated for the best part of the last 10 years. Turkey's big two are well clear of the rest again.
France and Germany have become more open in the last two seasons but Lyon won seven straight titles in the previous decade. Bayern Munich have won 10 out of the last 20 titles. This is not to say that they, as with the likes of Barcelona, United and Porto, do not have shrewd people in charge who make good decisions. But Champions League participation has become a self-perpetuating way of reinforcing the advantage.
Chelsea have already made £45m from the competition this year, with a further £2.8m if they win the final. That does not include the matchday revenue from their six home games. City have earned £21.3m from their first year in the Champions League – a drop in the ocean for them until you consider that last season's Europa League campaign was worth a relatively paltry £4.5m.
The Champions League is the only show in town. The billionaires who have pumped money into City and Chelsea know that. They want to get into it and stay there so they can stop spending so much. Both clubs have invested heavily in academies, and academy players. Abramovich even now supports Uefa's financial fair play, according to Michel Platini, the Uefa president.
"Your revenue stream is not going to come unless you get into the top four," City's former chief executive Garry Cook said in July 2009. "That means bringing in players to get you there and spending above the odds on wages before the revenues start flowing. You've got to invest in one before you get to another. Any business does that."
Brutal, isn't it? But that plan has ultimately led to the significance of tonight's game, one of the most exciting potential winner-takes-all finales to the season in 20 years. Some people will always regard City as the crass over-spenders. They may well have to survive without the affection of the neutrals, even against United. But they had to do it this way. Otherwise they would never have made it at all.
If Liverpool show is open it will be worth the watch
Last week, a fellow reporter challenged his Twitter followers to come up with a title for the Liverpool fly-on-the-wall documentary/movie to be made by Fox Soccer Channel. There were some beauties. "You'll Never Talk Alone" was the best I saw. "I Can't Believe What You Did Last Summer" and "Con Ayre" got pretty close too.
Graham Taylor once told me that he participated in his famous "Do I not like that" documentary in 1993 because he wanted the public to see the England job – dealing with the players, the press, the fans – as it really was, and he was prepared to take the consequences. I have always admired him for that.
That seems to be the lesson: if the Liverpool programme has no-holds-barred access and no limits over its final cut then it should tell the truth about the club. Which is admirable, even if it is invariably never easy for those involved.
Guardiola may regret walking out on Barça
When Pep Guardiola finally announced his resignation on Friday, I was reminded of Sir Alex Ferguson's words after last May's Champions League final. The Manchester United manager was told then that Guardiola might walk away from Barcelona. Ferguson responded by saying that if Guardiola did, he would never touch such heights again as a manager.
Every man is different, and no one could doubt Guardiola's contribution to Barcelona's history. But sometimes it is just about gritting your teeth and getting through it – "I can't go on, I'll go on," as Samuel Beckett wrote. Ferguson should know.Reuse content