And then there were two. Manchester United face Manchester City in the final of the FA Cup in a game that arguably has the highest stakes of any FA Cup fixture in recent memory. It is the first Manchester Derby in the history of the FA Cup final. Furthermore, Manchester City are chasing football immortality, en route to a historic treble to join their opponents for this game.
Here are five things to watch out for in the most anticipated FA Cup final in recent memory:
Tale of two No 9s
It was news that disappointed many but surprised nobody. Anthony Martial has been ruled out of the FA Cup final with a recurring hamstring injury. It is his fifth injury this season which will cause him to miss his 28th game of the season.
It has been one step forward, two steps back for the French striker and the latest injury poses serious questions over his future. However, in the immediate present, Man United are left with a glaring hole at the No 9 position. Marcus Rashford is the favourite to start through the middle in his absence but this means more tinkering for Erik ten Hag, hardly ideal preparation for their biggest game of the season.
Manchester City, on the other hand, have arguably the world’s best striker in their ranks. Nothing can be said about Haaland at this point that hasn’t already been said. The Norwegian cyborg is a guarantee of goals and feasted on United’s defence in the game at Etihad, bagging a hattrick. He was kept quiet in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford which means he will be driven to make amends.
It is a startlingly opposite tale of two No 9s, one which shows how much work Man United have left to do to catch up to Man City.
Any tactical surprises?
A big game, against a rival, on the way to immortality. The stage is set for Pep Guardiola to pull a rabbit out of the hat with a tactical tweak that nobody sees coming.
When these sides met last time, Erik ten Hag won the poker game with a tactical adjustment of his own. Starting Luke Shaw at centre-back despite Lindelof and Maguire being fully fit turned out to be a masterclass as Haaland was blanked in that game.
Since then Pep has worked on fortifying his team against the threat of counter-attacks. A tactical adjustment has been the reinvention of John Stones as a holding midfielder. Starting alongside Rodri, he has made Man City much more secure out of possession and the change in role has unlocked Stones’ full passing game.
Guardiola memorably played without a midfielder in the Champions League final he surprisingly lost to Chelsea two years ago. Observers will be watching with a keen eye if something similar occurs here.
Pep Guardiola vs Erik ten Hag – Best of three
Surprisingly, the Manchester Derby at Etihad Stadium was the first time a Pep Guardiola team faced off against Erik ten Hag’s team. After a battering at Etihad, Erik ten Hag made a roaring comeback by downing City at Old Trafford.
After two games, the record reads one win for each manager. Therefore, the FA Cup final is the decider of the mini-series this season.
The stakes were already high for this game, but subplots like this add much more richness to the spectacle. Which manager will take the honours in this best-of-three series?
Casemiro – The big game player
Casemiro didn’t start the 6-3 battering at Etihad. He started the 2-1 win at Old Trafford. Erik ten Hag has been at pains to stress that Casemiro is the “cement between the stones” of his Manchester United team and his performances since coming into his own have proven that.
He has made a habit of scoring big goals at big moments to save a misfiring Man United multiple times this season. He set the club on their way by opening the scoring against Newcastle in the Carabao Cup final.
Now Manchester United will need him to add to that goalscoring touch by also putting in a lockdown performance against Kevin de Bruyne. His form could make or break this tie in either team’s favour.
History Makers vs Party Poopers
Manchester United have a habit of stopping Man City in their tracks when the stakes are the highest. Their comeback from 2-0 down to prevent Manchester City from winning the title against them comes to mind.
On June 3, Manchester City will again be tempted to create history. No other English team has won the treble before apart from Manchester United and City are two wins away from doing it. Fortunately for Red Devils, keeping that record intact is in their own hands. Manchester United have a mountain to climb. Manchester City haven’t even conceded a goal yet in the FA Cup.
Jose Mourinho memorably roused his team during that comeback by saying “They want you to be the clowns in this circus.” Well, the circus is coming to Wembley this time. Can Manchester United avoid being the clowns for the second consecutive time by being Manchester City’s party poopers? Or will Manchester City be history makers?