There is a bona fide football controversy to talk about, and with that perhaps the most authentic sense that the sport is beginning to right itself after the pandemic and more specifically after a week at which football came to the brink of civil war. Aymeric Laporte scored the vital goal against Tottenham with eight minutes remaining, to secure Manchester City its fourth straight League Cup, but there were serious questions as to whether he should have been on the pitch.
Laporte was booked in the final minute of the first half for a cynical trip on Lucas Moura that prevented a counter-attack, but had somehow escaped a similar sanction for an almost identical offense earlier in the half. Had he received a yellow card earlier on, of course he probably wouldn’t have made the same challenge later, but that will do little to assuage the sense of grievance for Tottenham fans asking whether the match-winner should even have been on the pitch.
It was an afternoon on which a number of major storylines came together. Ostensibly, this was the first domestic Cup final of the season, played just a week after City’s hopes of a quadruple were ended by Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal. But it was about far, far more than that.
To begin with, fans were back for the first time since March last year that a game played in England featured supporters from both sides. There were 8,000 spread out through Wembley, barely a smattering among the 80,000 red plastic seats, but even that small proportion were a welcome sight. Crowd noise on the television broadcast was real, and there was a true sense of normality remaining—all too normal given a points failure meant the two main Tube lines servicing Wembley were severely disrupted.
Then there was the very strange situation Spurs found themselves in after the sacking of Jose Mourinho on Monday. Having brought in a supposed “born winner” at exorbitant cost to turn potential into silverware come what may, the club ended up decided a week before a major final that it had more chance of success under a 29-year-old with no previous managerial experience than with Mourinho.
Ryan Mason, three years after a serious head injury ended his playing career, should have dominated the build-up to the final, just his second game as a coach, but everything this week has been overshadowed by the proposed Super League—which would have included both City and Spurs—and its collapse.
Spurs fans demonstrated against the present owners, Enic, before Wednesday’s league win over Southampton; City fans seem less bothered by their owners, perhaps because they appeared reluctant partners in the new league and were the first to formally withdraw their club. There have also been suggestions it was lobbying by the UAE government, which of course includes Abu Dhabi, whose sovereign wealth fund backs City, that helped persuade the UK prime minster Boris Johnson to speak out against the Super League.
There were few protests at Wembley, the mood one rather of optimism before a Cup final, particularly one at which fans were permitted. The game itself was dominated almost absolutely by City, which had chance after chance, but wasted so many that the thought began to develop that perhaps this simply wouldn’t be its day. Not for the first time recently, City’s lack of a proper goalscorer, with Sergio Aguero diminished by injury and Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling out of sorts, was exposed.
Not that this was a matter of wastefulness, as such. Perhaps City could have been more clinical, but Hugo Lloris made a number of fine saves and Toby Alderweireld effected a remarkable block to divert a Phil Foden shot onto the post. Such threat as Tottenham posed was almost entirely on the break but as time went by the pressure never relented. The winner eventually came from a left-wing corner, powerfully headed in by Laporte after he got a run on Moussa Sissoko.
The quadruple is no longer possible, but with the league all but won, City’s attention now shifts to Wednesday and a Champions League semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain. For the rest of football, though, there is just a sense of relief that the game went ahead after the ructions of last Sunday, and that the return of at least some fans seemed to pass off without a hitch. Slowly, the game is getting back to normal.
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