City face Arsenal in Sunday's League Cup final with Guardiola having previously lost only one major final
Winning League Cup would mark the start of Pep Guardiola's Manchester City dynasty
Manchester City have been there before. They have a recent habit of winning the League Cup every other year. In Manuel Pellegrini’s debut season in 2014, it proved the prelude to clinching the Premier League title, just as Jose Mourinho did that particular double in each of his spells at Chelsea. A purist sounded like his pragmatic antithesis as Pep Guardiola stressed the importance of winning the winnable of major English trophies. “We have to lift titles to give more value to what we have done,” said a manager who secured 21 trophies in Spain and Germany. “We will be judged on how many titles we win.”
Emulate a predecessor and a rival and history could repeat itself. It could in another respect, too. City’s last trip to Wembley was to face Arsenal. Then, as now, City were favourites. But, illustrating their capacity to win cup matches against opponents they regularly lose to in the league, Arsenal emerged triumphant 10 months ago. It ensured that, for the first time, Guardiola finished a season without silverware.
History has already repeated itself once this week. Wigan Athletic’s 1-0 defeat of City echoed the scoreline from the 2013 FA Cup final. Both games illustrate that favourites can show frailties in one-off games. “I was delighted with the performance, but in football you can make a mistake,” noted Guardiola. On Monday, Wigan had a solitary shot on target. That was all they needed. Finals, he said, are decided by “how clinical you are”. So are semi-finals. Fortune favoured Arsenal 10 months ago: Raheem Sterling, a doubt for Sunday’s game, had a goal controversially disallowed when the officials ruled Leroy Sane’s cross had gone out.
Over 38 games, those moments can be cancelled out. Over one, they can come at a cost. The turnaround Arsenal mustered at Wembley in April was a case in point; besides their disallowed goal, City also struck the woodwork twice.
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But it is worth noting that Guardiola has only lost one major final, in the 2011 Copa del Rey to Mourinho’s Real Madrid. He attributes that fine record to encouraging his players to be brave in possession. Indeed, his entire approach, urging his charges to pass the ball in what others could deem dangerous positions, contains an element of calculated risk. Over a season, and with a colossal lead in the Premier League, it promises to be a spectacular success. Over 90 or 120 minutes, it helps explain why City have seemed more fallible in domestic cups than the Premier League. In part, that has been a consequence of rotation. It explained why Guardiola went to Ashton Gate with such strength to face Bristol City, fielding perhaps nine of his strongest available 11.
An exception, Claudio Bravo, will start at Wembley on Sunday. “Without him, we would not be here,” said Guardiola, showing loyalty to a League Cup stalwart who has starred in successive shoot-outs. The penalty-saving prowess of a former second-choice keeper, Willy Caballero, won City their last League Cup. Their next could carry more significance. A team who have made winning games a habit now have to make securing silverware another.
Because there has been something of an interregnum in English football, with no consistently dominant club since Alex Ferguson’s retirement. City’s form this season suggests they could fill the void, even if it was understandable that Guardiola made no such grandiose statements.
“It’s a big mistake to think about what can happen in the next three years,” he said. “It makes no sense.”
For him, perhaps. For others, the temptation is to wonder if it would be the start of something, leading to far more prestigious honours; if it is the beginning of a dynasty. And as Guardiola knows, dynasties are assessed on both what they won and how they won it. They are about substance and style. City have brought the aesthetics already this season. Now for the honours to reflect their excellence.