Pep Guardiola waxed lyrical about Jude Bellingham when the Borussia Dortmund sensation locked horns with his star-studded Manchester City squad earlier in the campaign.
In modern terms, with so much cloak-and-dagger put forward by managers, it was virtually an admission of his future interest.
Who can blame him? Bellingham is one of the most gifted young players on the planet and, similarly to his former Dortmund teammate Erling Haaland, there will be a (dis)orderly queue for his signature when the teenager opts to seek out a fresh challenge away from the Bundesliga.
City will put their own case while other elite clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and some from closer to home will not give up without a chequebook stand-off. Ultimately, finer details such as money might not even be a telling factor in where Bellingham wants to scale greater heights after his time at a proven production line.
Success is at his mercy. Bellingham has the footballing world at his feet and Guardiola knows it.
“The quality and skills, everyone knows about it, but it’s not just about that. It’s about the whole package. He’s really good. He’s already in the national team playing with them at 19. That’s quite impressive. But as I said when he was 17, it wasn’t just the quality, it was about he was shouting, leading, kicking, and going to the referee.
“I thought that this guy was something special in terms of that mentality. Now, at 19 years old, he is already one the captains of the [Dortmund] team and, when that happens at 19, it is quite impressive.”
When jetting into Manchester this September for a Champions League group-stage showdown, Bellingham wasn’t exactly putting forward his first audition for City and Guardiola, but the child prodigy turned full-blown star cranked up his reputation to another level with a goal and commanding performance at the Etihad Stadium.
Only a late winner from (who else) Haaland prevented Bellingham from guiding his team to what would have been a huge point. Regardless of that, though, any lingering doubts over his standing on the world stage were silenced as Bellingham gets ready to play a key role for England at the World Cup.
Incidentally, that might come at the expense of City’s summer signing Kalvin Phillips, who shone for the Three Lions alongside Declan Rice at Euro 2020 last summer. Injury has cruelly denied Phillips an opportunity for pre-tournament game-time and that should tip the balance in Bellingham’s favour from the off against Iran.
Despite that heightened status, he might have found it equally tough-going to break into the City midfield had he pitched up at the Etihad Stadium before now. Getting past Rodri, Bernando Silva and Kevin De Bruyne is no simple task and so that proved for Phillips prior to his injury – with Ilkay Gundogan to factor in also.
At some stage further down the line, Guardiola will need to evolve that midfield for one reason or another and the fanciful option would be to pre-empt that reshuffle by going all-out for Bellingham next summer. However, looking back on those rivals in the market for him, the final decision might be out-of-hand for the City manager.
It has long-since been suggested that Phil Foden could eventually take up a role in the engine room – while fellow Academy graduate Cole Palmer must not be discounted, either, after starting in the position when Sevilla touched down in Manchester for a rare European dead-rubber.
Palmer and Foden were paired with seasoned club captain, Gundogan, on that date as if to offer up a little glimpse into the future. Guardiola has the perfect opportunity to do likewise when City take on Chelsea in the Carabao Cup this Wednesday night with hopes of restoring their recent monopoly in the competition.
While he might not be as polished as Bellingham just yet – and very few are – Palmer needs to be given chances to underline his own burgeoning talent especially when taking into account that City might not be ‘fortunate’ enough to win the Dortmund raffle twice in successive summers.
“Maybe if Jude Bellingham had gone to City, United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham and the top teams in England, maybe he could not get the minutes he has had and the best thing for a young player to be a better player is to play minutes.”
In showering Bellingham prior to that September meeting, Guardiola inadvertently mapped out what Palmer needs moving forward. Bellingham and Foden offer proof at what can be achieved at a young age with such exposure, but like Palmer the latter first had to take opportunities such as this one against Chelsea.
All eyes will be on the team sheet when it drops an hour before kick-off.