New Telegraph

FA Cup: Can United avoid lightning striking twice?

According to experts the chances of getting struck by lightning even once are 1 in 15,300. But the odds of getting struck by lightning twice in one’s lifetime are at 1 in 9 million! Coincidentally this is exactly what has happened to two teams from one city, Manchester, as both City and United go head-to-head in the final of the oldest club competition in the world – the FA Cup. In fact this will be the first time in 104 years of the 152-year history of the competition that the same teams will contest the final back-to-back! Almost exactly one year till the day both teams from the red and blue half of the largest city in the Northwest of England met in the final of the same competition with the Cityzens securing an ultimately comfortable 2-1 victory.

In that game, also played at the home of football in England, Wembley, the Red Devils got off to a disastrous start after conceding the fastest goal in FA Cup history after just 12 seconds courtesy of İlkay Gundogan! Credit to United though they did rally and drew level 32 minutes later after their skipper, Bruno Fernandes tucked away a penalty. But inexplicably the team from the red half of Manchester failed to learn their les- sons and just six minutes into the second half conceded again with another Gun- dogan strike; but this time were unable to bounce back. The stats on June 3 (when last year’s final was played) showed that City had 60% of possession, made 517 passes against their opponent’s 342 with 87% accuracy. On the other hand, while United did actually out shoot the winners 13 to 11, however, only three of theirs were on target compared to City’s five.

Incidentally even though City had more of the possession they committed most of the fouls 12 to United’s 11. Sadly for United fans (of which I am a staunch one) although both teams still have the same managers at the helm of affairs in Pep Guardiola for City and Eric ten Hag for the Red Devils, the direction of their respective sides is diametrically opposite – leaving millions of fans from the red half of the city wondering where it all went wrong. Last season when both sides met, Unit- ed did so as a cup winner having lifted the Carabao Cup in February after beating Newcastle to end a six-year trophy drought and had finished the Premier League season in third position. Throughout the 38-game campaign United had lost only nine games while winning 23 to amass 75 points. They scored 58 goals and let in 43 for a plus 15 goals’ difference.

For many fans after years of hit and miss following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 the Old Trafford hierarchy had finally got it right in the person of 54-year-old former Ajax manager. It was naturally expected that the team would push on after the false dawns of Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjær and actually mount a serious challenge to knocking their city rivals from the top of the log along with the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal. Instead what unfolded was a train wreck of a campaign being dumped out of their first Champions League quest in years in the group stage. In fact their per- formances were so awful that they did not even have the face saving parachute of competing in the Europa League after finishing rock bottom of Group A! Their defence of their Carabao Cup also ended in ignominy after being humbled at Old Trafford 3-0 by Newcastle in the Fourth Round. However, the team’s performance in the league was even worse and have set unwanted records by having lost 14 times, the most since the Premier League kicked off in 1992, with six of those defeats turning the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ into a ‘Theatre of Nightmares’ having happened at Old Trafford.

The team ended the campaign in eighth position on 60 points, eight points off the top four and 31 points behind champions City. But perhaps what has been more galling for United fans has been Hag’s failure to acknowledge that his side has massively under performed and has often laid the blame on injuries as if he has been the only manager to have faced such foes this season. According to givemesports.com, Chel- sea have had the highest number of in- juries this season with 54 followed by Newcastle (38) and Tottenham Hotspur (37) – all three are placed higher on the table then Hag’s team, which has only suffered 35. Speaking after the 4-0 loss at Crystal Palace earlier this month, Ten Hag add- ed: “There was only one very poor performance (recently), so all the others, there was always very good spirit.

“I would almost say across the season, across all the problems we had – I don’t think I have to sum them up again, but we have had them – but the spirit in the team, the fighting spirit, was always there. The dynamic was always there and I think we also had some good performances, even when the best players were not available.” However, across the divide in the blue half of the city things have been com- pletely different with Guardiola’s side still maintaining their high standards and have even broken the most consecutive titles won with four having just wrapped up this year’s. They jointly held it at three along with Sir Alex’s all-conquering side that won three straight titles – 2007, 2008 and 2009. And should City win today they will inch closer to the 12 FA Cups United have won with seven.

Since Sir Alex made his famous ‘noisy neighbours’ quote some 15 years ago, the ‘noisy neighbours’ have supplanted the Red Devils as the top team in the land, especially under their Spanish manager. Under the 53-year-old former Barcelo- na handler, City has undoubtedly raised the bar consistently winning the league title with over 90 points and in 2018 – 19 points more than second placed United. Even in 2020 when Liverpool broke City’s league monopoly, they were pushed hard by second placed City, a clear indi- cation of how motivated they are when it comes to challenging for trophies.

Sadly for United fans, Ten Hag’s record against Guardiola is even poor by com- parison to Solskjaer’s, with four defeats from United’s five derbies in the past two seasons. Barring dramatic upturns in perfor- mances from Ten Hag’s players, from all indications there will only be one outcome this afternoon – with lightning striking twice for the team from the blue half of Manchester!

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