United stun City in FA Cup final to give Ten Hag hope of avoiding the sack

Published May 26, 2024
LONDON: Manager Erik ten Hag lifts the trophy as Manchester United players celebrate after winning the FA Cup final against Manchester City at Wembley on Saturday.—Reuters
LONDON: Manager Erik ten Hag lifts the trophy as Manchester United players celebrate after winning the FA Cup final against Manchester City at Wembley on Saturday.—Reuters

LONDON: Manchester United saved their best performance of a mediocre season to the very end to deprive their rivals of the double.

With speculation swirling about the future of manager Erik ten Hag, United ripped up the form book as they upset Manchester City to win the FA Cup with a shock 2-1 victory in Saturday’s final.

Ten Hag was reportedly set to be dismissed regardless of the result at Wembley after a troubled campaign that even the United manager described as “terrible” this week.

But United’s hierarchy might be having second thoughts after Ten Hag’s tactical masterclass ruined City’s history bid.

City were hot favourites to win a second successive Premier League and FA Cup double.

Yet Ten Hag found a way to neutralise Pep Guardiola’s side as first half goals from Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo put United on course to win the FA Cup for a 13th time.

They had to endure a second-half siege, however, as City swarmed forward and a late goal by Jeremy Doku set up a nerve-shredding finale before United could celebrate their first FA Cup final triumph for eight years.

Ten Hag celebrated by kissing the Cup as he held it aloft in the Royal box.

“The performance was very good against the best team in the world,” Ten Hag told the BBC. “We’ve had so many setbacks this season with all the injuries but we showed so much resilience and I’m proud of them.”

Asked if he was worried about his future, he said: “I don’t know. The only thing I’m doing is preparing my team. This is a project for me. When I came in I can say it was a mess. Now we are better. We are not where we want to be.”

Having ended a turbulent season on a high note, if Ten Hag’s two-year reign does end, his exit would provoke memories of fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal’s Old Trafford departure. Van Gaal was fired just two days after United’s FA Cup final victory against Crystal Palace in 2016.

Ten Hag will hope a more apt comparison is Alex Ferguson’s 1990 FA Cup final win against Palace, which kick-started his remarkable run after calls for his sacking earlier that season.

Ferguson was in attendance as a match labelled Ten Hag’s funeral turned into a triumph for the much-maligned Dutchman.

Premier League champions City, bidding to become the first club to win the double in successive seasons, had been on a 35-match unbeaten run in all competitions in open play.

But a week after sealing an unprecedented fourth successive Premier League crown, Guardiola’s side were well below their best, gifting Garnacho a 30th-minute opener.

A long ball forward should have been meat and drink for Josko Gvardiol but his headed back pass went over advancing keeper Stefan Ortega and Garnacho accepted the unexpected gift with glee.

“Incredible. Nobody believed in us. But we’re a team, all together. We fought, the game of our lives,” Garnacho, who became the first Argentine to score in the Cup final since Ricky Villa for Tottenham Hotspur against City in 1981, said.

Just nine minutes later, Mainoo punished more sloppy City defending. Garnacho advanced unchecked down the right wing and found Bruno Fernandes, whose superb first-time pass reached the unmarked Mainoo for a clinical close-range finish.

In the first final between the same teams in successive seasons since 1885, City woke up in the second half and Erling Haaland hit the crossbar, but they had to wait until the 87th minute for substitute Doku to halve the deficit, when his shot slipped through Andre Onana’s grasp

United stood firm, however, to seal the best result of Ten Hag’s two-season reign and qualification for next season’s Europa League.

“Congratulations to United,” said Guardiola. “It was a tight game. It can happen. At the end they scored two goals and we couldn’t score more.”

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2024

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