Ilkay Gundogan is Manchester City's Zinedine Zidane — the ultimate big-game player

Another important match and another brilliant performance from Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan - Getty Images/Will Palmer

As the ball fell from a benign summer sky, the heat of some pre-match Wembley flares still toasting the air, only Ilkay Gundogan had a clear conception of what would happen next. No sooner had Stefan Ortega’s long clearance looped off the head of Victor Lindelof than Manchester City’s captain, a man whose natural diffidence belies a core of steel, waited for it to drop on his right boot, lashing it beyond David De Gea before he could blink. Cue mayhem, with his incredulous team-mates swarming to acclaim the figure who saves his finest flourishes for when it matters most.

Kyle Walker is the first to recognise Gundogan’s immeasurable worth. Before City’s surgical filleting of Real Madrid at the Etihad, he made a telling remark, describing the midfielder’s capacity for peaking at the perfect moments: “I’ve been joking with Gundo that he turns into prime Zidane in the last few months. Sometimes you have to shine, and he always does it at the business end of the season.”

Seldom was a truer word spoken. For it is not just Gundogan’s temperament on the loftiest stage that recalls Zinedine Zidane in his prime, but his volleying technique. His glorious strike after just 12 seconds was reminiscent of Zidane’s thunderbolt for Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final, masterful in its execution. He was not finished either, picking Kevin De Bruyne’s free-kick out of the air with his left foot, more scruffily this time but still with an accuracy to restore a lead that City would never relinquish. Somebody who can score volleyed goals with both feet in an FA Cup final against Manchester United? No wonder Guardiola regards him as a player of the purest gold.

The paradox is that this could have been Gundogan’s last act for City in England. With Barcelona understood to have offered him a two-year deal, and City so far willing to grant him only a one-year extension at the age of 32, the likelihood has swung in recent months towards him leaving. Except this was an occasion to underscore the priceless value of his contributions. Previously, City dared hope that they could replace him seamlessly with Jude Bellingham. But now that the 19-year-old English wunderkind is primed to sign for Real Madrid instead, attention switches back to Gundogan and the treasured asset City stand to lose.

Pep Guardiola did not hide his debt of gratitude to Gundogan here. The man of the match was given the longest embrace of any City player by his manager as the sky-blue tickertape fell. The bond that the two share is palpable: after all, Gundogan was the first signing of the Guardiola era, joining from Borussia Dortmund in June 2016. Seven years on, he is still being entrusted to deliver under the most oppressive pressure. And with good reason, given his pedigree. A first Manchester derby in this fixture, and a second Treble in the history of English football on the line? Where others might shrivel, Gundogan embraces the expectation and elevates his game to a different level.

The bond between Pep Guardiola and Ilkay Gundogan was clear to see after the win at Wembley - Reuters/Carl Recine
The bond between Pep Guardiola and Ilkay Gundogan was clear to see after the win at Wembley - Reuters/Carl Recine

The numbers speak for themselves. If you study the timing of Gundogan’s goals over the past three seasons, you see that he has an uncanny ability to start slowly but finish with a devastating sprint. No goals in September since 2019? Who cares, when he has 13 over those decisive March-May periods? In his past six games, he has managed six and been the provider for two more. Not content with scoring twice against Everton in a match City had to win to fend off Arsenal in the title race, he turned up at the double at Wembley to ensure that his club completed a second Double of their own under Guardiola, in just four years. Even if Erling Haaland could not convert his chances, Gundogan ensured City would not be thwarted.

He was as self-effacing as ever at the final whistle, despite having left the crowd agape with the audacity of his opening goal, the quickest ever in an FA Cup final. “We know how we want to play from the kick-off and we aim to do that, to go long for Erling and try to get a second ball,” he said. “Obviously it was quite a good strike.”

Yes, you could say that. It was enough, clearly, to convince Guardiola of the merits of Gundogan staying, acknowledging that he was relying on Txiki Begiristain, City’s director of football, to negotiate a longer deal for the man of the hour. You felt, as Guardiola hugged every member of his side and his backroom staff, as if all the pieces were falling into place. City were not at their best in this final, and yet the superiority in quality over United was so glaring that it left Sir Alex Ferguson looking as if he had just chewed a wasp.

Once, Ferguson was the dominant force, the builder of dynasties. But that billing today belongs indisputably to Guardiola, who tactically neutered United just as surely as he made Real Madrid resemble a rabble. He was not what you might call traditionally dressed for the day, spurning a suit for a green ‘P’ hoodie, but he hardly could care less about Wembley’s sartorial protocols. He prefers to be at one with his players, living every kick, co-ordinating every attack, contesting every dubious decision, and driving this all-conquering team to standards of excellence with which nobody else can live.