·4 June 2023
·4 June 2023
Two down, one to go. Perhaps it is a sign of the FA Cup’s diminishing status that it seems the least of the trio, perhaps a sign of its historic importance that Pep Guardiola sounded genuinely delighted to win it. “The emotions are so, so special,” he said. For the record, and it can be obscured by much else on a sizeable CV, he is now the only manager to win each of the main English, Spanish and German knockout competitions two times.
There was a time when it represented arguably the biggest prize in the domestic game, another when the double was the ultimate achievement. Only four clubs did it in 97 years. In the last 38, nine have: over three decades, more than a quarter of champions have also ended the season with the FA Cup. It is a sign of how a concentration of resources at the top have altered the footballing landscape. Manchester City are an extreme case, even if the man who proved their Wembley match-winner, Ilkay Gundogan, was a £16m bargain.
But if the 2023 FA Cup will have a greater significance than most, it is probably for two reasons. This was, in more than 150 years, the first final to double up as a Manchester derby. It may not be the last if City maintain their dominance and Erik ten Hag’s revival of Manchester United proves more than a fleeting affair. Both of these neighbours had arguably underachieved in the competition in the previous decade, even though each had won it once; they had claimed eight League Cups between them over the same period.
And there is the importance of the FA Cup as part of a package, as one-third of a potential treble. If City’s legacy and reputation rests in part in the hands of the lawyers, given the 115 charges of breaching Premier League financial regulations, on the field, it depends on the continent. “We have to win the Champions League to be recognised how the team deserves to be,” said Guardiola. The idea is nothing new: the different element is that he has started to admit it as the prospect has grown likelier. Many a City fan would rather win the Premier League than the Champions League but it always felt disingenuous when Guardiola used to argue he would, too. “You have to put the pressure on yourself to be recognised as something good, so you have to win in Europe,” he has now admitted.
Europe seems the final frontier for this most European of sides. The most seismic FA Cup – on its own, anyway – in City’s history may forever remain the 2011 tournament that Yaya Toure decided in their favour; it opened the floodgates.
Then, there was a novelty value. Now, the distinctions can feel statistical: Gundogan scored the quickest goal in FA Cup final history after a mere 13 seconds. It took a contentious penalty to stop them becoming the first team since 1903 to win the competition without conceding. Their eventual goal difference was 19-1.
Riyad Mahrez had delivered the first semi-final hat-trick since Alex Dawson’s in 1958. The fact the Algerian’s treble came against Sheffield United was both indicative and deceptive. “Many times we arrive in the semi-finals,” said Guardiola; they can be their undoing, the proximity of Champions League knockout ties tending to stop them flourishing on all fronts.
Yet City finish this season’s competition having knocked out the teams who came second and third in the Premier League and, including Chelsea, three of the supposedly big six. They have beaten five of next season’s top flight even if two of them, Burnley and Sheffield United, had a rather greater focus on promotion.
There are signs of how the FA Cup is secured this season. Erling Haaland has scored 52 goals this term but has only found the net in one FA Cup match, even if it did bring him a hat-trick against Burnley. Neither Mahrez, their top scorer in this season’s competition, nor Julian Alvarez, who was tied for second, actually took part in the final. Phil Foden, another of those to get three goals, was limited to a cameo.
City’s squad is not as large as is often imagined but they have quality in such depth that their first 18 or so players are outstanding; United could reflect that theirs are perhaps not when they brought Wout Weghorst off the bench. The man who played most minutes in City’s FA Cup campaign was, indirectly, the instigator of that record-breaking goal, Stefan Ortega, whose punt forward led to Gundogan’s wondrous strike. In his own way, the second-choice goalkeeper is a reason for glory, and not merely with his collection of clean sheets. Guardiola’s willingness to pick his reserve goalkeeper has cost him in previous seasons, with Zack Steffen culpable in successive semi-final defeats. Ortega has proved an upgrade, just as City showed defensive resolve when United threatened an equaliser.
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