FA Cup final marks clash of priorities, styles between City, Wigan
One team is looking to salvage something from its season. The other is taking a break from its quest for salvation. As such, Saturday's FA Cup final between Manchester City and Wigan should provide an interesting contrast in motivations, styles and emphasis.
It hasn't been the most satisfying campaign on the blue side of Manchester. Last year's Premier League champions bowed out unceremoniously from the Champions League without a win in their six group-stage games, and they've put up relatively little resistance as crosstown rival Manchester United rolled to its 20th top-flight title.
In the process, the Citizens have often uncorked performances more effective than attractive, with a disappointingly conservative approach that doesn't make the sexiest use of the attacking talent procured by Dubai oil riches. City's signings last summer have been, for the most part, disappointing (and/or injured). Selling Mario Balotelli in January didn't help a side that sometimes can suffer from a lack of lethalness.
City has been in second gear for some time, entrenched in position for next season's Champions League and with very little to play for given the points gap between it and United. This final against a pronounced underdog is City's last chance to make something good from a disappointing campaign.
It also provides a final referendum on the job manager Roberto Mancini has done this season. It's yet to be seen whether City's below-par season and second straight Champions League flameout will ultimately force a change on the bench, but a loss would be a very poor final statement from the Italian.
If City's intent is clear, Wigan's is conflicted. The Latics are making their first-ever Cup final appearance, but the event comes smack in the middle of their seemingly annual attempt to avoid relegation. This season's may have been short-circuited by Tuesday's 3-2 home loss to nothing-to-play-for Swansea, a match in which Wigan blew two leads.
The defeat left Wigan on 35 points and in 18th place, three points behind a cluster of three teams ahead of them. They must pass one of them with just two matches remaining to avoid relegation. Because of the Cup final, those two games will come this upcoming week, at Arsenal on Tuesday before the season finale at home to Aston Villa on Sunday.
While it's possible the Latics can survive on 38 points -- they are tied with Newcastle and a goal worse than Norwich City on goal differential, and would have another win while whichever team they catch would have lost their final two matches -- getting to 39 or 41 would give them a much better chance.
That would require Wigan to grab at least a draw at Champions League-eyeing Arsenal just three days after this Cup final, with a rested Gunners team waiting for them. The match at Arsenal will be Wigan's eighth in the span of a month, with all of those matches being late-round Cup ties or high-pressure Premiership fixtures. The Latics don't have the quality of depth to handle that kind of schedule without some hiccups, and the mistakes made on Swansea's second and third goals Tuesday may be evidence that they're running out of steam.
So a decision will have to be made: How hard does Wigan go for the Cup, when Tuesday's fixture is of massive importance to their survival hopes, and the tens of millions of dollars associated with remaining in the Premiership?
It appears manager Roberto Martinez, himself perhaps distracted by rumors of a new gig at Everton to replace Manchester United-bound David Moyes, will go with Ali Al Habsi in goal, even though he's been displaced by Joel Robles as the team's No. 1. Both are capable netminders, so the larger question will be if and how he juggles the rest of the lineup and how many of the players will be able to battle against the force of Manchester City and still have something left for the trip to the Emirates. Saturday's match, rightfully so, is being painted as the biggest game in Wigan's history, but the most important one may come three days hence.
However the teams line up, it could be an interesting watch. Wigan deserved at least a draw at the Emirates a few weeks back but was denied by a late Carlos Tevez strike. It's not a team that will bunker, and its attractive passing style may be a nice contrast to City's more direct leanings. Cup glory will be someone's come Saturday evening, but the winner's celebrations could be tempered by consolation. This isn't the competition either club is primarily geared to claim.
One thing is certain: Whichever club loses the match will have even more to think about this summer.