Sunday is huge for Manchester City, a day on which it could effectively win two trophies. There is the League Cup final, in which it faces a Chelsea side it beat 6-0 in the league two weeks ago, but taking place right before that is Liverpool’s game at Manchester United. If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s resurgent side wins that, City will remain top of the table on goal difference and, more crucially, will have played the same number of games as Liverpool. In simplest terms, the title would be in its own hands. Barring an extraordinary swing in goal difference, Man City would know that it would claim the title if it wins each of its final 11 games of the season–a tall task, surely, but to have control of its destiny after nearly having Liverpool run away with the race would mark a sensational turnaround.
The prime function of the League Cup, it often seems, is as a bellwether. It provided Jose Mourinho with his first trophy in English football and, last season, it provided Pep Guardiola with his. If City wins, it will become the second-most successful side in the history of the competition with six titles. Three of the five it has won have come in the last five years.
Perhaps it’s of little more than symbolic significance, but were Man City to win, it would mark the first time the club ever retained a trophy. For a club that has a reputation for inconsistency and flakiness, that, as much as anything, would be indicative of just how different the Sheikh Mansour era is to what has happened before.
The biggest danger for City, perhaps, is the sense of expectation. It is possible for teams hammered in the league to beat the same opponent in the Cup. In 1989-90, for instance, Liverpool beat Crystal Palace 9-0 in the league but was beaten 4-3 in the FA Cup semifinal by Steve Coppell’s side.
The difference there, though, was that seven months passed between those two games and Palace had completed changed its approach, introducing a back three by the time of the Cup meeting. It was only two weeks ago that City humiliated Chelsea at the Etihad and, even if he had had seven months, there’s no suggestion Maurizio Sarri would have been prompted to change anything anyway.
He has one way to play and, if it isn’t working, he does it some more. Reports have suggested that Sunday’s final and Wednesday’s league match against Tottenham will be crucial in determining Sarri’s future. A bad result in either, and he is likely to be on his way, the victim both of his own stubbornness and of a board that appointed a manager whose style of play was ill-suited to the squad at his disposal.
Liverpool, meanwhile, has the opportunity at Old Trafford to re-establish its lead at the top of the table in the form of points rather than as the potential of a game in hand. City also has to go to Old Trafford–it’s not clear when because the game was initially scheduled for FA Cup sixth-round weekend, and both City and United are still alive–and it may be that those two games wind up deciding the title race.
It was a defeat at Liverpool in December that cost Jose Mourinho his job as United manager, but the form of the two sides is very different now. Solskjaer’s arrival has brought new enthusiasm and energy to United. A run of eight wins and a draw in nine league games, coupled with the struggles of Chelsea and Arsenal, has propelled United into the top four, but when he took the job that seemed such a distant prospect that the bigger priority would have been to win this game and look to check Liverpool’s title challenge.
The difficulty is the expected injury absences of Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, whose pace would be so useful in getting behind the Liverpool fullbacks. After their two injuries had occurred against Paris Saint-Germain, United’s threat diminished, and although it was more penetrative against Chelsea on Monday, this is a different level of challenge.
Liverpool, though, has not played particularly well in 2019, with the possible exception of the 3-0 win against an acquiescent Bournemouth. Win here, though, and not only is the league lead re-established but perhaps the biggest hurdle to the end of the season will have been cleared–and one that City still has to navigate.
Sunday will decide the first trophy of the season–Community Shield aside–in England, and it could have a major bearing on another.