A city at war United out to stop City’s treble march
Manchester United and Manchester City will contest arguably the most-anticipated FA Cup final in recent memory at Wembley today. A single match it may well be, but its significance stretches beyond just this weekend given the wider context of the achievement City are chasing.
United’s status as the only English team to ever achieve the treble — that’s the top tier league title, FA Cup and European Cup/Champions League — has come under real threat in the past couple of years, and many would consider City near certainties to match that feat this season after winning the Premier League.
After all, they’re firm favourites on Saturday and against Inter Milan in the Uefa Champions League final a week later.
Fitting, then, that United can have a direct say in the matter. The first ever major final between the two neighbours will have Pep Guardiola’s side looking to further their all-conquering ambitions, while Erik ten Hag hopes to lift a second trophy in what would subsequently be perceived a very positive first season, if it isn’t already.
“I understand, of course, the feelings from the fans about it,” Ten Hag said of the final and City’s treble chase. “We will do everything to give them the second trophy — everything that I have, everything the team has, the staff have, we will give everything to get it done.”
United beat Newcastle United in February to win the EFL Cup, meaning victory on Saturday would see them clinch a domestic cup double for the firstm time ever. But City are different beast.
The way they simply — well, that’s how it seemed — elevated their level when it mattered most in the Premier League title race was hugely impressive, racking up 12 wins on the bounce to leave Arsenal in their dust.
Now they can become only the third club to win a league and FA Cup double more than once if they are successful at the weekend.
Such occasions may not be quite as frequent for United as they once were during the Sir Alex Ferguson era, though historically they are a club used to going deep into the competition.
This will be their 21st FA Cup final, a joint record with Arsenal.
Of course, the flipside to that is a defeat on Saturday will mean they’ve lost more FA Cup finals than any other team (nine), but it’s surely better to have reached that stage than not, right?
Either way, the task ahead of United is seismic. City are the highest scorers (17) in this season’s FA Cup and potentially 90 minutes away from lifting the trophy without conceding once, something no team has done since Bury in 1903.
On top of that, City dominated our Premier League Team of the Season, with Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Manuel Akanji and Ruben Dias all enjoying stellar campaigns. United had no representatives, though with the likes of Marcus Rashford, Casemiro and Bruno Fernandes, they clearly have weapons that can hurt the EPL champions.
Most United fans will hope some City stars are ruled out before the weekend, and Guardiola has suggested Dias, De Bruyne and Grealish are among those doubtful. Given his track record, however, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see all three named in the starting XI.
Ten Hag will be without Anthony Martial and Lisandro Martinez, while the availability of Brazil winger Antony remains unclear after he was carried off on a stretcher during the win over Chelsea last week.
City have beaten United 6-3 this season — a game that saw both Erling Haaland and Phil Foden score a hat-trick, though much has changed since that remarkable October head-to-head at the Etihad Stadium. Namely, Ten Hag’s side prevented their rivals doing the double over them, with a 2-1 win at Old Trafford showing United’s progress in terms of team cohesion and tactical adaptability.
United refused to fall into the trap of pressing high and chasing City around the pitch. Their total of five pressed sequences was only lower (three) in the September defeat of Arsenal, while their average possession start position of 33,7 metres from their own goal was the deepest recorded by United this term, and well below their season average (42,7m).
Their focus was on defending deep and attacking quickly, directly. They registered five direct attacks over the course of the game, which was the joint-most they managed in a single Premier League game across the season.
One of those situations resulted in the equaliser as well — albeit in controversial circumstances. Having fallen behind to Jack Grealish’s header with an hour played, United levelled 18 minutes later.
Casemiro’s long pass in behind the City defence appeared to pick out the run of Rashford, but after realising he’d be offside if he touched it, the England forward let it go for Fernandes, who emphatically swept past Ederson.
It was initially disallowed for offside against Rashford, much to Fernandes’ fury, but the goal was then allowed to stand despite the United attacker appearing to interfere with play even without touching the ball.
Rashford then completed the turnaround himself a few minutes later, prodding in from Alejandro Garnacho’s well-placed low cross to become the first Man United player since Cristiano Ronaldo in April 2008 to score in seven successive appearances.
It also took United to nine consecutive wins in all competitions, at the time their longest run since one of nine in December 2016 and January 2017 under José Mourinho. — The Analyst