LONDON: All roads from Manchester lead to Wembley Stadium on Saturday for the first ever FA Cup final between the city’s arch-rivals — a fitting climax to the domestic season and a clash loaded with significance for both clubs.
For Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, a first FA Cup triumph since 2019 would put them one game away from repeating Manchester United’s treble of 1999 — to date the only season in which a club won the English title, FA Cup and Champions League.
For United it represents the chance to add the FA Cup to the League Cup they won in February — a domestic cup double they have never achieved before. Having also finished third in the Premier League, would represent an impressive first season at the helm for Dutch coach Erik ten Hag.
Another trophy is motivation enough for United, but stopping City’s march towards a treble that could be sealed a week later in Istanbul against Inter Milan will fuel their hunger.
“We want to win, we want to win a cup,” Ten Hag, who has blossomed after a tough start at Old Trafford, told reporters on Friday. “It’s not about stopping them. It is about that we win, that we win the cup. We have a great opportunity.
“That’s great that we deserved that opportunity to be in the cup final and then meet City. That’s a great opportunity. We fought so hard for it. I think we progressed that well that we are in that FA Cup final.”
City have won a treble before under Guardiola — sweeping all the domestic honours in 2019 when they thrashed Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup final. But repeating United’s 1999 feat would rubber-stamp City as the best football team in the world.
It would also make redundant a favourite anthem of United’s fans, one they gleefully sing to remind City’s faithful that they have never won the historic treble that Alex Ferguson’s side completed 24 years ago.
City’s domination of the English landscape is such that United’s bragging rights are severely diminished these days, although in terms of FA Cup wins there is still a chasm between the clubs with United seeking a 13th and City a seventh.
United have also won five of their last six FA Cup meetings with City but the last of those came in January 2012.
City, driven by the chance of sporting immortality, will start favourites on Saturday in the 142nd edition of the showpiece final, although Guardiola will be wary of a United side they lost to 2-1 in February, avenging a 6-3 mauling at the hands of their neighbours in October.
The fact they ended the Premier League season with a draw and a defeat, having already wrapped up their fifth title in six seasons with three games to spare, will offer United some room for optimism but Guardiola rested key players and fine-tuned his tactics ahead of the two matches that will define their season.
United’s treble winners only secured the title with a win against Tottenham Hotspur on the last day of the season and needed an astonishing late fightback to beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
Those victories tested the nerves of everyone associated with Ferguson’s team and City could be about to experience the most fraught part of their own treble chase.
Inter, who are third in a relatively weak Serie A, will be underdogs against City next week but United should pose a sterner threat and Guardiola is well aware Ten Hag’s team have enough quality to hurt them if they are not at their best.
“What Manchester [United] are doing in the last five or six months, they’re a completely different team to what we faced at the beginning of the season,” Guardiola told a press conference on Friday.
“Finals are all about how you will be in the 90 minutes, in that moment,” he added. “It’s not what you have done in the past or how good you are. It’s one game, so we have to be our best to beat them.”
Guardiola also urged his players not to look ahead to their bid for a first Champions League crown.
“Thinking about titles, the second or third, we have to analyse the strength of our opponent, look at the weaknesses they have,” he said. “Everything surrounding is normal, you cannot control it.”
Despite Guardiola’s caution, Abu Dhabi-backed City have become English football’s first dynasty since United’s Ferguson era and have every reason to believe they will lift the FA Cup for the second time in the Spaniard’s reign.
City reeled off a blistering streak of 12 successive league victories to land a third consecutive title. Last weekend’s 1-0 loss at Brentford, in which City fielded a weakened team, was their first defeat in 26 games in all competitions.
Inevitably, Erling Haaland will be City’s key man at the end of a brilliant first season in England.
The Norway striker has scored 52 goals in all competitions, including a single-season record 36 in the Premier League.
United are among Haaland’s victims after he hit a hat-trick against them in October, but Ten Hag came up with a plan to hold him goalless in the rematch.
That was another notable achievement in an impressive first season for Ten Hag, who ended United’s six-year trophy drought with a League Cup final victory against Newcastle United in February.
Ten Hag is only the second manager in United’s history to win a major trophy in his first season and adding City’s scalp at Wembley would underline the vast improvement under the Dutchman.
United, who finished third in the Premier League, are relishing the opportunity to ruin City’s treble hopes, even without injured forward Antony.
Despite the fitness issues plaguing his team, Ten Hag remains confident United have the squad strength to beat City.
“These questions so many times about the absence of players in the last couple of months,” he said. “Every time I say the same answer: it’s about the players who are available and many times we were successful. We have a good squad and from that good squad we make a good team.”
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2023