Once again, Manchester City will play in the League Cup final. And once again, when the stakes were highest, Manchester United didn’t quite have the quality to get the result it needed.
Man City won their semifinal, 2-0, at Old Trafford on Wednesday and will face Tottenham in the final on April 25 looking for a fourth consecutive League Cup title. But perhaps of longer-term significance is another demonstration of City’s rapidly improving form, and a reminder that United is still a level below the very best.
City has been scratchy for much of this season, struggling for fluency and rhythm. When it drew at home to West Bromwich Albion on Dec. 15, it seemed legitimate to ask whether this was the worst side Pep Guardiola had ever managed. Five wins in a row since then have restored a sense of perspective, though. This may not be quite the team it was two or three years ago, but City remains an excellent side, too good for United.
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s past record against Guardiola was good, with three wins in six games and two of them in the league last season. In both of those games, United sat deep, allowed City to take the attacking initiative and then struck on the break, exploiting City’s vulnerability to balls played in behind its defensive line. In the league this season, a determination to avoid being countered against led to Guardiola playing unusually conservatively, resulting in a largely uneventful 0-0 draw.
This was a very different, far better game. City had been slowly bubbling into form before coming to the boil in Sunday’s 3-1 win over Chelsea. Wednesday, again, its passing was slick and crisp, and it attacked with verve and imagination. Kevin De Bruyne hit the post with a remarkable 13th-minute effort, and City, as it had on Sunday, looked like a side rediscovering form and confidence. But United resisted stoutly, defending well and offering a significant threat of its own. U.S. national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen made one outstanding save to deny Bruno Fernandes, reaching up with his right arm as he dived to his left to claw away a long-range effort, while Harry Maguire was a persistent menace from set plays.
The opening goal when it came, though, resulted from a City set play. As when Guardiola’s side beat Mourinho’s United, 2-1, with two goals from set pieces in 2017, there was an odd sense of disbelief, as though a goal so ordinary had no place in a game of such quality. It was John Stones who got it this time, bundling a left-wing free kick from Phil Foden over the line with his thigh.
Stones’s career at City had seemed to be over just six weeks ago. Guardiola seemed to have lost faith in him, while the signings of Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake edged him down the pecking order. But he came into the side in the 5-0 win over Burnley at the end of November and has been almost faultless since. Callum Hudson-Odoi’s late strike on Sunday was the first goal City had conceded in Stones’s last nine starts.
The goal, scored five minutes after halftime, brought 10 minutes of fluent attacking. City, suddenly, was brilliant again. This was what it was like at its best, when it seemed unstoppable, sweeping forward in great waves and slicing through United’s midfield. Joao Cancelo flashed a shot just over. Dean Henderson made a fine save from a Raheem Sterling header, and then an even better one to tip away a curling Riyad Mahrez effort.
But United had enough about it to survive. What was apparent, though, as it chased an equalizer, was just how reliant it still is on Bruno Fernandes. With Fernandinho excelling at the back of midfield, the Portugal international struggled to find space and didn’t exert the sort of influence he so often does.
By the end, United was reduced to slightly pathetic appeals for penalties, none worse than Anthony Martial’s after a very obvious dive. The volume of penalties United has been awarded over the past couple of years has become a talking point in the last few days; this would have done little to quell suggestions it goes looking for them.
Only with eight minutes remaining was the game settled, with Fernandinho volleying in a half-cleared corner, but the truth is that City was much the better side, particularly after halftime. This is a strange season that means any conclusions must come with a caveat, but City looks defensively sound and is playing with great attacking verve. For Guardiola, a campaign that began with doubt could end in triumph.