Perfection can come in many forms and be interpreted in different ways. Manchester City has produced more polished performances under Pep Guardiola this season. There have been matches where the team has scored more and created more – yet City’s ability to dominate its opponent, to do enough to win when it matters is as perfect as it gets on a soccer pitch. It is why this team continues to chase history this season.
As the 2-1 scoreline would suggest, this FA Cup match between bitter rivals City and Manchester United was a tense affair. A victory for the blue side of Manchester was never a foregone conclusion. United had opportunities, yet City had the composure, the know-how, the class.
Two goals from captain İlkay Gündoğan – the first 12 seconds after kick off for the quickest in FA Cup history – secured a win which gave City its second trophy of the season and maintained the team’s quest to win the ‘treble’ of the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League.
This Saturday Wembley, next Saturday Istanbul where City could become only the second English club to win all three major trophies in a season if it overcomes Inter Milan in the Champions League final. The other club to have achieved that feat? Manchester United in 1999, which helps explain why this was no ordinary FA Cup final.
For a competition which has arguably lost its luster over the years, the plot lines woven into this match stirred this oldest of cup ties back to the forefront of English soccer: a first FA Cup final between these two city rivals, one looking to defend its legacy, the other knowing victory would be a defining one during an era in which it has dominated English soccer.
Yet for all Pep Guardiola has achieved with City, the Premier League was wrapped up a few weeks ago for a fifth title in six seasons, and this was a second FA Cup – and 11th trophy overall – in his seven-year tenure, City has never won the Champions League. It is the trophy the club craves the most.
Such is the caliber of the team assembled by Guardiola, it is the favorite to win in Istanbul. After defeat United manager Erik ten Hag described Guardiola’s team as the best in the world and few would argue with that claim.
Only Inter Milan can now stop City from sporting immortality, making this defeat for United and its fans an especially bitter one.
“Now we can talk about the treble,” Guardiola told reporters after the match.
Guardiola had said before the match that United was a dangerous opponent because the club’s legacy was on the line, there were the achievements of the past to protect. Yet, while United was once the most ruthless accumulator of trophies in English soccer, dominating during those golden years under Alex Ferguson, this is the age of Guardiola’s City.
United still has global appeal, one which City does not yet match, and under manager Ten Hag the team has improved – it is now more consistent, qualifying for next season’s Champions League and winning the League Cup earlier in the season.
Though United only had three shots on target during the match, the Dutchman told reporters afterwards that he was happy with his side’s performance and that “on another day we could gave won this game.”
“I only have one plan and that is to improve this club and improve this team,” he added. “I will fight for it. I have my ideas, but also, as I said, I have to work with my staff, my players, I have to be better next season.”
But the truth is United has much to do to be a match for a City team which has finished above it in the league for the last 10 years. Arguably, there is too much for Ten Hag to do to turn United into a team that could contend with City for the title next season.
It seemed as if the gulf would become evident in the final scoreline of this match when City took a stunning lead, silencing the red half of the stadium on a sunny afternoon in London.
The sounds of the national anthem had yet to fully subside into the ether when City captain Gündoğan produced a moment of skill that will live long in the memory, putting City ahead with a sublime volley from outside the box with less than a minute played.
The move started with goalkeeper Stefan Ortega whose long kick was flicked on towards Kevin de Bruyne by Erling Haaland. The Belgian found Gündoğan and before United’s defense could calibrate the ball was in the back of the net.
City threatened to break loose thereafter – Haaland twice went close, while De Bruyne also took aim at an overworked David de Gea – but in the 33rd minute fortune favored United.
The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) deemed Jack Grealish had handled the ball in the penalty area, which allowed Bruno Fernandes to calmly side-foot home to level a match which had been threatening to go one way.
But just as in the first half, City exploded into action after the break – Gündoğan again putting Guardiola’s side ahead. It was another volley and though it scored less for artistic merit than his first, its importance nonetheless should not be underestimated because not only did it secure a league and FA Cup double for the second time in the club’s history, but it kept City on course for greatness.
Twenty minutes later, Gündoğan thought he had scored a hat-trick only for his goal to be ruled out for offside but, in the end, it didn’t matter.