In some ways, nothing has come easy for Manchester City in what is already a historic season — repeating as Premier League and Carabao Cup champions. Yet while their quest for a historic domestic treble reaches its conclusion Saturday at Wembley Stadium versus Watford, their biggest fight may still be yet to come.
Potential Starting XIs
Manchester City (32-2-4) recorded the second-highest point total in the Premier League era — behind their 100 amassed in 2017-18 — and needed every last one of those 98 points to fend off Liverpool. The Cityzens won their final 14 regular-season matches, capped with a 4-1 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion on Sunday.
“I think first we have to say congratulations Liverpool as well – and thank you of course – because they helped us to push and improve our standard from last season,” Guardiola told City’s official website. “To compete with this side, this team, we should do what we have done, so incredible, 198 points since we started two seasons ago here, and we finished here this season, made back-to-back – it has been an incredible season for us.”
City provided their supporters with a jangling of the nerves by conceding first, but Sergio Aguero equalised 83 seconds later. Aymeric Laporte followed with the go-ahead goal on 38 minutes off a corner from Riyad Mahrez, and the Algeria international kicked off the celebrations with his right-footed smash in the 63rd minute.
Ilkay Gundogan added gloss with a well-taken free kick nine minutes later, and the celebrations continued on the south coast after the final whistle as City collected their second straight Premier League title and fourth in eight years.
The list of accolades and statistical supremacy City amassed for the second straight season is equal parts jarring and impressive. Aguero narrowly missed out on the Premier League Golden Boot with 21 goals, one less than Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane as well as Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Raheem Sterling — the PWA Player of the Year — and Leroy Sane were two of just three players to register at least 10 goals and 10 assists in league play along with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. Eight different City players had at least six goals and five had at least seven assists.
On the other side of the pitch, Ederson finished with 20 clean sheets, trailing only compatriot and Liverpool No. 1 Alisson (21). Ederson, though, can claim offensive bragging rights since he did register an assist in league play. City conceded only 23 goals on the season, one more than Liverpool.
Ahead of this match, Guardiola again quashed rumours surrounding a potential move to Juventus, saying with a hint of annoyance Friday, “How many times do I have to say? I’m not going to move to Turin, to Italy. I am satisfied working with this club, with the people here.
“That is how I feel today, but football changes a lot. Next season may not be as good, but I am going to be manager of Man City.”
City’s successful defence of their Carabao Cup came with little fanfare — though it required two victories via penalties. Backup keeper Aro Muric was the hero in the quarterfinals at Leicester City, and No. 1 Ederson had a penalty save in the final against Chelsea before Sterling struck the winner as Manchester City became the first team to repeat as EFL Cup winners since Manchester United in 2009-10.
The sternest test the Cityzens had en route to Wembley was their 3-2 victory at Championship side Swansea City in the quarterfinals in which they overcame a two-goal deficit in the final 21 minutes.
But ahead of what could be a joyous and unprecedented treble — one that would (subjectively, of course) either surpass or be just below the Manchester United 1999 treble comprised of the Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League titles — there was rage and frustration from the club at Europe’s governing body after UEFA’s investigators recommended a ban from the 2020-21 Champions League for making false declarations of sponsorship income.
The central charge presented by investigators of UEFA’s club financial control body (CFCB) revolve around a payment of £59.5 million allegedly made by the the club’s holding group, Abu Dhabi United Group, that was claimed as payment by a sponsorship deal from Etihad Airlines.
City already seemed resigned and ready to bring the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland whenever a ruling by the CFCB is handed down, with currently no timeline established. The club will get the chance to present their case in person at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, but their statement released after the charge was formally announced clearly implies the club will not only fight this to the end but expect this to move beyond the governing body.
“Manchester City Football Club is disappointed, but regrettably not surprised, by the sudden announcement of the referral to be made by the CFCB chief investigator Yves Leterme,” the club said. “The leaks to media over the last week are indicative of the process that has been overseen by Mr Leterme. Manchester City is entirely confident of a positive outcome when the matter is considered by an independent judicial body.
“The accusation of financial irregularities remains entirely false and the referral ignores a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence provided by Manchester City FC to the chamber.
“The decision contains mistakes, misinterpretations and confusions fundamentally borne out of a basic lack of due process and there remain significant unresolved matters raised by Manchester City FC as part of what the club has found to be a wholly unsatisfactory, curtailed, and hostile process.”
The club accepted sanctions from UEFA to a previous violation of FFP rules in 2014, which included a £49 million fine and a roster-size restriction for Champions League to 21 players instead of the customary 25.
This is only the third time Manchester City have been in the FA Cup final since Mansour bought the team in 2008, which in some ways is a testament to the sometimes crapshoot nature of England’s oldest tournament as well as where clubs place priorities as they play on two, three — or in the case of City — four parallel tracks simultaneously when including league and other cup commitments.
It is their first finals appearance since their shock loss in 2013 to relegated Wigan Athletic on a stoppage-time header by Ben Watson. Manchester City have lifted the FA Cup trophy five times — most recently in 2011 — and are making their 11th finals appearance overall.
Watford (14-8-16) wrapped up their most successful Premier League season in club history with 50 points and an 11th-place finish in the table. It was, however, a disappointing sprint to the tape for the Hornets, who lost their final three matches and cost themselves a shot at seventh place that would have given them a spot in the Europa League qualifying rounds regardless of the outcome at Wembley.
Now, Javi Gracia’s side must find a way to defeat arguably the best juggernaut of the Premier League era, otherwise that spot will go to promoted Wolverhampton. Still, Gracia refused to let Watford’s slump at the end overshadow a banner term that included a club record for points accrued in a Premier League season as the Hornets finished six points higher than 2017-18 in his first full season at Vicarage Road.
“In my opinion, it not so important to finish 11th, 10th or ninth,” the gaffer told Watford’s official website after the Hornets closed the season with a 4-1 home loss to West Ham United. “Obviously we prefer to finish as high as possible, but we have to know how we can improve our play to compete better in the next game, the final.
“In the last games we didn’t keep the same level as before. I would like to see the best face of my team. I am sure my players know how important that game is. I have no doubt they will give their best. We are angry and sad but tomorrow we’ll start to recover. I’m sure all of them will be ready.”
This is only the second time in club history Watford are playing in the FA Cup final, with the other appearance a 2-0 defeat to Everton in 1984. At the time, the club was more well-known for who was serving as chairman — legendary pop singer Sir Elton John — and the stories that have come rushing back as a wellspring from former players from that side have added to the magic the current side created with their surprising run to Wembley 35 years later that erased the sting of four semifinal losses dating back to 1987.
John has canceled a scheduled concert in Copenhagen to lead his beloved club out with his two sons.
“We were in great spirits beforehand,” recalled right back Steve Terry to the club’s official website. “We’d beaten Arsenal at home – as usual – for the last league game. We thought we could beat them, don’t get me wrong. We had a side to beat anyone and we showed that during the league season with some of our results.
“But we were missing big characters at the back on the day – the likes of Pat [Rice] and Wilf [Rostron] – and some of our more prolific players just didn’t play well on the day; probably Everton snuffed them out well more than anything.”
The characters Watford need to step to the forefront on this day to pull off the surprise win will be talisman Troy Deeney and fellow striker Gerard Deulofeu. Both have already shown themselves capable of magic at Wembley, starring in the Horners’ heroic fightback in the semifinal versus Wolves. Entering the match as a substitute, Deulofeu began the rally from two goals down with a cheeky bend inside the right post from inside the penalty area on 79 minutes.
After Deeney’s nerveless penalty in stoppage time forced extra time, Deulofeu was the man of the moment once more, racing onto a through ball from Andre Gray and slotting his shot across goal inside the left post in the 104th minute for the match-winner.
For Deulofeu, it has been a breakout season for the winger considered an enigma after failing to catch on with Barcelona’s senior side. The 25-year-old finished with 12 goals in all competitions, his highest single-season haul since netting 18 for Barcelona’s “B” team in 2012-13.
“He is a good player,” Gracia said. “But the most important thing is the quality of the player. Deulofeu, you know, has a high quality. In this moment he is playing in one position more regularly, because in other seasons he has played as a second forward, as a winger, as a striker as well.
“This season he has played more often as a striker, with two up front. He feels comfortable playing in that position with his teammates.”
Gracia claims he has already picked his first XI, a chore made easier when the FA rescinded the red card left back Jose Holebas was given against West Ham United for his foul on Michail Antonio. While a professional foul, it clearly did not warrant a dismissal, and the FA quickly upheld Watford’s appeal to get the Greece international available for this contest.
Gracia will also likely be turning to his No. 2 between the sticks for this match — Heruelho Gomes — as he has for all of Watford’s cup matches this season. Additionally, starting keeper Ben Foster has been on record saying he would “absolutely refuse” the starter’s role in this contest after the Brazilian recorded three clean sheets and five wins to get Watford to this point.
The 38-year-old Gomes has often said this will be his last season in football, but the Hornets gaffer is hoping to change his mind and bring him back for one more season following this contest.
Manchester City did the double over Watford in the regular season, seeing off the Hornets 2-1 at Vicarage Road in December when Mahrez set up Leroy Sane’s goal in the 40th minute before scoring in the 51st, and then 3-1 at the Etihad in March when Raheem Sterling buried Watford with three goals in a blinding 13-minute spell after the break.
Still, Gracia believes his team can cope with the might City will bring into this match in their bid to end a 10-match losing streak and 15-match winless streak (0-2-13) versus the Cityzens dating to a 1-0 victory at Vicarage Road in 1989 when the teams were in Division Two.
“We lost both games but I think we showed that we can beat them. We competed really well in both games in different moments,” Gracia said at his Thursday press conference. “In the first game we lost 2-1 but we competed until the end and had chances at the end. In the second one we kept the result until the second half and then they scored from an offside position and the game changed. It was then tough for us to keep the same attitude. I think it showed us it’s possible.”
Kevin Friend has been tabbed as referee for this match, with fellow Premier League referee Andre Marriner serving as VAR official. It is Friend’s third high-profile match in charge at Wembley along with the 2012 Community Shield and 2013 League Cup final.
To come all this way and not wrap up the season completing the domestic treble, regardless of whether you want to rank it above or below United’s treble from a generation ago, would feel like a devastating letdown given the often stratospheric level of play City have operated at for large stretches of the season.
The expectation is City will have the same starting XI they had for their March win at the Etihad, which means Kompany and Laporte paired in central defence with John Stones as the odd man out, and Gundogan again deputising for the injured Fernadinho in the middle of the park.
Guardiola will likely have his usual assortment of an embarrassing amount of riches ready to join the fray, with Kevin De Bruyne again coming off the bench, Sane ready to be deployed on either wing, Gabriel Jesus as Aguero’s understudy and both Stones and Nicolas Otamendi on call if needed. Fernandinho has been training this week, but he likely is not match-fit enough to displace Gundogan.
When including their season-opening Community Shield victory over Chelsea, a win in this match would be Manchester City’s 50th in all competitions this term. There is really no way to put that number in perspective other than saying the Cityzens are a really (expletive deleted) good team.
On Watford’s side, the big change would be between the sticks where Gomes is expected to start over Foster. The Hornets returning to their customary 4-2-2-2 formation is expected since Gracia opted for a five-man back at the Etihad and played with an A/B side as he had one eye on the FA Cup quarterfinal match with Crystal Palace.
His midfield destroyers Doucoure and Capoue did not play together at Vicarage Road versus City because Capoue was serving a red card suspension. Any hopes Watford have for making their first appearance in Europe since 1983 rely on this pair since they will be tasked with disrupting Manchester City in the middle third while trying to spring Deeney and Deulofeu on the counter. Of the two, Doucoure is the better playmaker of the two, having totaled six assists in all competitions.
Win or lose, this is a match Watford must use as a foundation block to begin the process of stabilising itself as a year-in, year-out Premier League side. In some ways, it is remarkable how far the club have come in the seven years since the near-failed sale of the club from Laurence Bassini to the Pozzo family, but what the Hornets need now is stability at the managerial position.
Late swoon aside, the players took to Gracia and he to them as they played over their heads for much of the season. Given the managerial churn that has taken place under the Pozzos, partly by circumstance and partly by philosophy, Gracia should be afforded the opportunity to make the mark Quique Sanchez Flores, Walter Mazzarri and Marco Silva all failed to do.
Watford appear to be a side whose players enjoy each other’s company, and Deulofeu gives them a wild card in attack few sides below the Big Six have. It has gotten them further than expected, but the Hornets will need the match of their lives from all their starters to spring this upset. That starts with Deeney’s instinctive combativeness, Deulofeu’s imagination, Doucoure and Capoue’s disruptiveness, and Gomes to turn back the years for one big performance.
And even with all those things, it will likely not be enough. Because save 180 minutes versus Tottenham, Manchester City have been remorseless and inevitable while playing some of the finest football the world has known.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 3, Watford 1.
Manchester City — How They Got Here Watford — How They Got Here
1/6 — Won 7-0 vs. Rotherham United 1/6 — Won 2-0 @ Woking
1/26 — Won 5-0 vs. Burnley 1/26 — Won 2-0 @ Newcastle United
2/16 — Won 4-1 @ Newport County 2/15 — Won 1-0 @ QPR
3/16 — Won 3-2 @ Swansea City 3/16 — Won 2-1 vs. Crystal Palace
4/6 — Won 1-0 vs. Brighton and Hove Albion* 4/7 — Won 3-2 vs. Wolverhampton*
(* At Wembley Stadium)
Manchester City FA Cup Goal Scorers Watford FA Cup Goal Scorers
Phil Foden — 3 Etienne Capoue — 2
Gabriel Jesus — 3 Troy Deeney — 2 (1)
Sergio Aguero — 2 (1) Gerard Deulofeu — 2
Riyad Mahrez — 2 Andre Gray — 2
Leroy Sane — 2 Will Hughes — 1
Bernardo Silva — 2 Isaac Success — 1
Kevin De Bruyne — 1
Nicolas Otamendi — 1
Raheem Sterling — 1
Own goals – 3
(FA Cup trophy photo courtesy The Emirates FA official Twitter account)
(Manchester City celebration photo courtesy Manchester City official Twitter account)
(Jose Holebas photo courtesy Watford Football Club official Twitter account)