This afternoon, history beckons when the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium hosts teams from Manchester, in the 142nd edition of the world’s oldest knockout football competition – the FA Cup. Incidentally, Manchester City, occupying the blue side, and United, the red half of one of England’s largest cities, will be desperate to upstage the other in one of the showpiece games in English football. Once dismissed as the “noisy neighbours” by one of the outstanding managers of his generation, United’s Sir Alex Ferguson, the team from the blue half of the city has now supplanted their foes under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, who is undoubtedly one of the greatest coaches of his era.
When the wily Scotsman uttered these immortal lines some 14 years ago, he and his team were the standard-bearers of the game-winning trophies, and league titles on a regular basis to the envy of City, which even suffered the ignominy of being cast in the wilderness, and even relegated to the third tier of English football, for the only time in their history in 1998. They only returned to the top tier in 2002.
However, since Sir Alex quit the Theatre of Dreams some 10 years ago, the fortunes of the Red Devils have nosedived, whereas those of their ‘nosy neighbours’ has gone in the opposite direction to the chagrin of United fans. In fact, the fortune of City received a major boost in August 2008 following its takeover by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan through the Abu Dhabi United Group, with the cash injection allowing the Citizens being able to purchase any player of their choice.
But while the cash inflow alone was not enough to turn them into the fearsome side they are now, this was achieved in 2016, when the club signed Guardiola, and since then they have been completely transformed. Under the guidance of the Spaniard, Manchester City won the Premier League in 2018, becoming the only team in the competition’s history to attain 100 points in a single season. In 2018–19, they won four trophies, completing an unprecedented sweep of all domestic titles in England, and becoming the first English men’s team to win the domestic treble.
This was followed by three consecutive Premier League titles in 2020–21, 2021–22, and 2022–23, the third, fourth, and fifth in the Guardiola era. This is the juggernaut that the team from the red half of the city face in their quest to deny the Citizens from joining them as the only English side to achieve the international “treble” of winning the league, FA Cup and Champions League in one swoop! Man City wrapped up the league title a fortnight ago after overtaking Arsenal, who had been on top of the table for 248 days, they are also in the final of the European competition after dispatching holders, Real Madrid, in an awesome display of attacking football – securing a 1-1 draw in Spain before playing them off the park at the Etihad in a 4-0 triumph.
The arrival last summer of Norwegian forward, Erling Haaland, has taken the already fearsome City attack to an entirely new level of potency, which today’s opponents can attest to. When both teams met in the first leg of their league encounter on October 2, last year, the 22-year-old bagged a hat-trick along with Phil Foden in a 6-3 whitewash of the Red Devils. However, this happened with Erik ten Hag less than three months in charge of United, and he was able to get a measure of revenge when both teams met in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford on January 14 in a 2-1 win.
After the Etihad wakeup call, ten Hag opted to tinker with his formation in the reverse fixture, opting to select Fernandes to start on the right wing. It turned out as a masterstroke decision by the Dutchman as the stand-in captain produced an excellent performance to help United recover from a goal down to scoop all three points and the local bragging rights. Explaining why Fernandes started out wide against City that January lunchtime, ten Hag said: “The idea with Bruno on the right-wing and especially in defending, we defended as usual but, in possession, he had a role to come in-between the lines to bring an extra player there and bring the opponent problems and create hesitation and confusion, and I thought he played that role brilliantly.”
But while United is still evolving under the Dutchman, who has clearly made strides, the truth is that the Red Devils still have a long way to go to be at par with the well-oiled machine that Pep has turned City into. The 14 points between Champions City and third-placed United shows the gulf in class. However, speaking ahead of the FA Cup final, ten Hag drummed into his players the importance of the competition, telling them to “give everything in their power” to win.
The Wembley showdown with Manchester City will bring the curtains down on ten Hag’s largely impressive first season at Old Trafford in which he has already secured a trophy after winning the Carabao Cup as well qualifying for the Champions League. Although ten Hag has insisted the final won’t define United’s season, there is clearly a desire to end City’s treble dreams.
Nonetheless, in order to be able to do this, ten Hag will need to come up with another masterstroke and hope his men will also be on top of their games. Pep has his team purring like a finely tuned machine, and only die-hard United fans will be betting on them not only lifting today’s FA Cup but going on to beat Inter Milan next week to join the Red Devils as the only English side to have achieved the treble.
Incidentally, today’s meeting will be the 190th clash between the pair since their first meeting on November 12, 1881, when West Gorton, who would later become Manchester City – hosted Newton Heath, who would later become Manchester United, won 3–0. And although United have triumphed more with 78 wins to City’s 58 since then, that stat counts for nothing today as all that will matter is the team with the best game plan and players on top of their games.
So, which side of Manchester will triumph today? While my heart is praying for a reds’ win; my mind is telling me to prepare for the worst. But with me celebrating my birthday just 24 hours earlier, there can be no better gift for me than a United triumph, which would not only give us bragging rights but more importantly keep our treble record intact!