Two down, one to go: Manchester City on the brink of history

THE OUTCOME was what most people predicted; Manchester City had just a little too much for their local rivals, while United ended a season of progress in Erik ten Hag’s first with the club. City have very little time to celebrate, they play the third leg of their bid for the treble, the UEFA Champions League, in a week’s time, a game they will start as favourites.

In the end, the 90 minutes at Wembley was a little tougher than their 12-second opener suggested it might be. Ílkay Gündogan’s majestic volley caught out thousands of people settling into their seats and for one moment, sent a shiver down the spines of United’s fans. Was a thorough trouncing on the cards?

There has been a certain inevitability about City’s entire season, even when they were way behind youthful Arsenal. They calmly overtook the Gunners and easily marched to the FA Cup final by beating Chelsea (4-0), Arsenal (1-0), Bristol City (3-0), Burnley (6-0) and Sheffield United (3-0). Added to that, they reached the Champions League final by overcoming, among others, the Europa League winners, the top three clubs in Germany and, in the semi-finals, holders Real Madrid. Their path to Istanbul has not been a gentle stroll, it has been a severe test against some of Europe’s most accomplished clubs.

Although the unpredictability of a local derby at Wembley enhanced United’s chances of pulling off a shock result, in truth City always looked as though they were on their way to victory. The scoreline looked narrow, but the penalty that levelled that shock opener demonstrated everything that is wrong about the application of VAR. Little do referees know it, but this age of automated decision-making is triggering the beginning of the end for the officials. When judgement and discretion are replaced by technical accuracy, there will be no need for anything other than high-end artificial intelligence. Jack Grealish jumped for the ball and it was perfectly natural that his arms should be outstretched to provide some sort of balance as gravity brought him back down to earth. Yes, the ball grazed his hand, but was it really a penalty?

The goal made a game of it for United, for if City had not been pegged back, the final might have been embarrassingly one-sided. As it turned out, United had as many shots as City and restricted Pep Guardiola’s team to 60% possession, a relatively low figure for them. The second City goal, again by Gündogan, should have been saved by David De Gea, whose time at United may be coming to an end. Not only was the shot stoppable, but the German international was given far too much space. 

City’s superiority in domestic football is alarmingly clear; United finished third in the Premier League and won the EFL Cup, but they were 14 points behind their neighbours. In other words, aside from Arsenal, Manchester United represent the best the opposition has to offer but the gulf between City and United is certainly more than the cost of the starting line-ups. City’s spent around £ 100 million more than their United counterparts. United have had a good season, but they are some way behind and their best side includes no less than five players over 30 years of age. That said, City had four who won’t see their 20s again.

City’s critics will point to the club’s ownership as the catalyst for a growing competitive advantage, and they would not be wrong, but they have undoubtedly spent their money well, installing a very robust and innovative business model and employing top line professionals, including Guardiola, the most intelligent coach in the game. 

United are in a state of limbo at the moment, but when they are finally sold, they may just find themselves in the precisely the same category as City – owned by a middle eastern oil state with vast amounts of cash. On the other hand, the new regime may be a US sports team owner with more than one eye on the bottom line. United’s future is very much in the balance at the moment, although for the first time in a decade, there seems to be something of a plan. 

As for City, they have one game remaining to become the 10th team in Europe to win the treble of domestic league and cup and Champions League. The first to achieve this remarkable feat was Celtic in 1967, the most recent Bayern Munich in 2020. The club they face, Inter, won all three prizes in 2010 under José Mourinho. Manchester United are the only English club so far to pull it off, in 1999. Guardiola led Barcelona to the treble in 2009, he would be the first manager to do it twice. Who would bet against this all-conquering City team?

Big clubs don’t care about the FA Cup?Nonsense.

JUNE 2, 2023: This season’s FA Cup final should be something special. A local derby will appeal to the fans, if not the players, with Manchester United eager to prevent City from winning the treble and also so show Pep Guardiola and his team that they are a force to be reckoned with once more. United have been suffering for a decade, cast into the shadows a little by the loss of their most successful manager, the rise of City and a succession of poor decisions. They want to win at Wembley, to complete their own double of two domestic trophies, repeating Liverpool’s 2021-22 success.

People continue to moan that the FA Cup doesn’t mean anything to the Premier League clubs, and yet since 1992-93, the competition has been won 26 times out of 30 by one of the so-called “big six” with only four winners from elsewhere – Everton (1995), Portsmouth (2008), Wigan (2013) and Leicester (2021). A total of 39 of the 60 finalists have finished in the top six in the Premier League. Of the 30 finals prior to 2022-23, 28 have been all-Premier games.

This season, the Premier League saw nine of its teams fall at the first hurdle, including Newcastle and Aston Villa, who lost to Sheffield Wednesday and Stevenage respectively. It is a fact that some Premier clubs send out weaker teams when they play cup ties, but they are invariably too strong even with a side of squad players. The Premier managers know that they can deal with the FA Cup with a few changes, such is the power of the league. Both City and United will field their strongest available selections at Wembley, even though Guardiola’s men have an even bigger occasion on June 10 in Istanbul.