Ilkay Gundogan’s soccer career has been marked by two things: Success and injury.
Often at the same time.
Consider the run-up to the last World Cup, in which Gundogan scored in consecutive games for the German national team. But nine minutes after the second goal, he was carted off the field because of a back injury, keeping him out of a World Cup that Germany would win.
Two years later he became coach Pep Guardiola’s first addition at deep-pocketed Manchester City, which paid a $28-million transfer fee to pry him away from Borussia Dortmund. And he looked to be worth every penny, scoring in his first English Premier League game, adding two goals in an October league win, then scoring another two in a Champions League victory over Barcelona.
But his season ended before Christmas when he tore ligaments in his right knee. In a stirring tribute to their new teammate, City’s 11 starters took the field for their next game wearing Gundogan’s No. 8 shirt.
Given that history, you couldn’t blame Gundogan if he played the rest of the season with his fingers crossed and a rabbit’s foot in his pocket. Because his team is enjoying one of the best seasons in EPL history and the midfielder would like to be a part of it to the end.
“I’m thankful for what I have achieved. And thankful for where I am at the moment,” Gundogan, 27, said by phone from Manchester. “But I don’t know. I still feel hungry to achieve more.”
That could be difficult since few clubs have achieved more than this season’s Manchester City team, which leads the EPL by a massive 13 points after Saturday’s tie with Burnley. Manchester City, which has lost only once this season, is on pace to beat Chelsea’s record of 30 victories in a season, has a shot at becoming the first team to top 100 points in an EPL season and could shatter the league record for goals.
It had also reached the knockout stage of the Champions League, a competition no EPL team has won since 2012, and if it wins that tournament and the domestic FA Cup, which it is dominating, it would become only the second English club to win the treble.
And we haven’t even mentioned the team’s 18-game winning streak this season, the second-longest ever in a major European league. Gundogan has been a big part of all that; after going 90 minutes on Saturday, he’s on pace to appear in 26 league games, his most since 2012-13, a season that ended with a goal in the Champions League final.
“We don’t even think about losing,” said Gundogan, the son of Turkish parents. “Doesn’t matter who the opponent is, where we are playing, which players are playing. It’s just our mentality.
“We’re at the point now where our confidence is just immense. With that attitude and if we continue with the hunger that we have inside ourselves, it’s going to be really tough for an opponent to beat us.”
Or those opponents could just wait for City to wither from within. Because if winning an EPL title is tough, the insane finances of international soccer have made repeating as champion — something only Manchester United has done in the past decade — almost impossible.
In the Premier League, Isaac Newton’s insistence that what goes up must come down still holds — even if researchers in Manchester believe Newton’s law may have been stolen from the Hindus.
While scholars at the University of Manchester, less than two miles from City’s sprawling training facility, debate that thesis, Gundogan and Guardiola, who also came to England from the German Bundesliga, say another long-argued theory has already been settled: the Premier League is the toughest, most competitive domestic soccer league in the world.
“When people ask me what is different about the Premier League, it is because we have a lot of those [big] games. There are usually five or six contenders to win the Premier League so you have many,” Guardiola, who won league titles in Spain and Germany before coming to the EPL, told Sky Sports in November. “The level of the teams is so high.”
“It’s much more challenging,” he said. “The type of football seems to be a little bit harder than it is in Germany or Spain. You really need to earn every single point.
“It’s more competitive. It’s a whole new experience.”
City seems uniquely positioned to challenge that parity and build a dynasty since only aging midfielder Yaya Toure, 34, will see his contract expire this season. But even with the $14 million the club would save by Toure’s departure, its payroll of nearly $190 million would rank among the highest in soccer, a sport in which high salaries generally pay off with victories.
“I don’t think that there is much reason to leave this club because we are creating something big, something immense,” Gundogan said. “We are still developing. This is a long-term project here and I don’t think there’s any reason for someone who’s successful to leave.
“We can create something big here. I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid about the future.”
The present? Well, Gundogan can’t be too careful about that. Which is why he’d be wise to keep the rabbit’s foot close at hand.