It seems somewhat bewildering that the influential Ilkay Gundogan stands on the brink of captaining Manchester City to the greatest season in their 129-year history — and yet could leave for nothing at the end of this month.
As manager Pep Guardiola and teammates urge him to resist the intoxicating beauty of Barcelona and sign a new contract extension, the midfielder may well leave it to fate to sway the outcome of his uncertain future.
Earlier this season, Gundogan told Arab News how he felt “it’s destiny” that he has been a game-changer for the club and helped them rewrite English football’s record books.
“Sooner or later you will be regarded for the good you are doing, not just in football,” said the German, 32.
The precedent was set last season by his two dramatic late goals to inspire City’s 3-2 final-day comeback win over Aston Villa, having been 2-0 down with 14 minutes left, and clinch the Premier League title.
This season too he has shown the ability to affect games with decisive strikes or cunning, controlled performances — he provides calm amid chaos.
On Saturday, Gundogan’s two goals clinched a 2-1 win over Manchester United and an FA Cup and Premier League Double — a second for City in four years.
The first effort was an exquisite right-foot volley into the top corner after 12 seconds — the fastest in the 151-year history of the FA Cup — and then followed by an ugly left-footed finish that bounced past David De Gea.
It was a combination of grace and grit, masterful and yet messy.
These qualities are usually reserved for the sport’s best players, the ones able to define games, and those revered by their fan base and appreciated by their peers.
Gundogan does not have a catchy chant like Bernardo Silva, nor serenaded in the manner of Kevin De Bruyne, but he has been every bit as vital to City’s progress and success since he joined in 2016, while still recovering from a serious knee injury at former club Borussia Dortmund.
He does not covet attention but deserves appreciation for his contribution.
“Exceptional” is how Guardiola described Gundogan, while England defender John Stones added: “What a player. On the big occasion we’ve all seen it, he turns up and scores incredible goals.
“How he dictates everything, he’s an incredible player and incredible person.”
“He’s been incredible for the seven years he’s been here,” said De Bruyne. “In the big moments he steps up. He isn’t afraid and he scores great goals. Definitely, he should sign now.”
No one would begrudge Gundogan financial security for his family with at least a two-year deal, with his next contract also likely to be his final one at an elite European club.
And no one would begrudge him the perfect ending next Saturday either, should City claim victory in Istanbul over Inter Milan in the Champions League final to match the 1999 Treble feat of neighbors United.
“We have a chance to do something special and win the Treble and we do not want to let this opportunity pass us by,” said Gundogan. “I can promise our fans we will do everything we can to win in Istanbul.
“It’s my seventh year now. I’ve never stayed that long at a football club. So that alone shows how much I appreciate the club, how much also I feel appreciated from the fans, my teammates, it’s an absolute joy to be part of this team, to work with Pep and his staff.
“Now we want to crown it with that final. The last game of the season, a very, very special one — maybe the most special so far for us all in our careers — and obviously we want to win it.
“We know it’s going to be a very uncomfortable game, a very uncomfortable opponent. I think it’s going to be tough, but this group of players has shown already we don’t avoid the tough challenges.”
On Saturday, once Bruno Fernandes had rolled home a penalty to cancel out Gundogan’s opener, City rose to the challenge in a tense first Manchester derby cup final.
They withstood late pressure and calmed nerves with the steely defense and resilience that will be required too against Inter, as Stones added: “Our mindset and approach, our courage, was incredible. We’ve crossed this hurdle now and we can dream — hopefully we can do it.”
This Wembley showpiece was a big hurdle for City, tactically and mentally, against a United side also keen to remain the only English side to win a Treble.
But Erik Ten Hag’s side were not aggressive enough, nor able to produce the attacking quality to breach a backline that has conceded just the Fernandes spot-kick in this season’s competition.
The Dutchman said United were “broken” in defeat and he now has a difficult task to fix them.
If there is to be a takeover from Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al-Thani or INEOS CEO Sir Jim Ratcliffe, it needs to be quickly finalized by the Glazer family to aid Ten Hag’s summer plans.
It would be wrong to say United are spineless, but they need improvements in the spine of their side, from goalkeeper to striker.
Despite De Gea’s 17 clean sheets that won him the Golden Gloves award for the most in the Premier League, the Spaniard has made notable errors that have put his future under intense scrutiny — and his positioning was suspect for both goals.
Ten Hag said: “In this moment, I don’t want to talk about such issues of criticism because we played all a great season, including David De Gea.
“As a team, we didn’t do the jobs we had to do and if you want to win trophies, details in big games make the difference and it’s hard to accept, but we have to.
“Of course it’s a motivation, you have to feel it in your stomach, it hurts. It has to be fuel.”
Ten Hag will have to stoke United’s fire with new signings and, while Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount is in talks, the caliber of West Ham captain Declan Rice, Tottenham’s Harry Kane or Napoli’s Victor Osimhen should be high on the wish list.
“I have only one plan, that is to improve this club and to improve this team,” added the United boss, whose side finished third in the league and won the League Cup.
“I will fight for it. We have to work — the manager, the staff, the players, to get the progress in.”