Man City need Carabao Cup win vs. Arsenal to put lingering anxiety to bed
With thoughts of the Quadruple and any hope of winning the FA Cup now behind them, Pep Guardiola and his Manchester City squad switch focus to winning their first trophy of the season against Arsenal at Wembley this weekend.
In true, time-honoured City fashion, the defeat at Wigan on Monday instilled a frisson of doubt in supporters who had been drifting gently toward a new and pleasant land of certainty and serenity.
The old doubts of City and their passion for the unpredictable had all but vanished, the contrariness of a history littered with missed chances and embarrassing belly flops beginning to evaporate in the new climate of professional rigor.
The loss to the League One side reminded many that City are still capable of moments of insecurity and fragility. Many will be pleased to have been reminded of this essential part of their upbringing following the club.
Having sown the seeds of doubt in so many minds, the club might just breeze through the Carabao Cup final this weekend, brushing a below-par Arsenal side away with something to spare. To follow the script, this is the outcome that many expect. Even more impartial analysts might point to City's unquestionable superiority.
History tells us two things: The League Cup has long been a tournament of choice for City, right from the early 1970s, when West Brom were beaten on a cabbage-patch pitch to start the decade. There was a loss to Wolves in 1974, when manager Ron Saunders forgot to play any defensive midfielders, while another win in 1976 against a flu-ridden Newcastle side brought three final appearances in the 70s alone.
City's trophy drought set in after the 1976 final and lasted into the modern era. Recently, the love affair with the League Cup has been resurrected, with this weekend's match the club's third final in the tournament in five years. A win to go alongside dramatic victories over Sunderland in 2014 and Liverpool two years ago would give City their fifth overall League Cup win.
City and Arsenal have met on various occasions in the past in this competition, the first being in 1977-78, when Arsenal went through to the semifinals after a replay. Arsenal again prevailed in 1985-86 and once more the following season, during a period when the London side held a curse over City in all competitions. Between 1977 and 2006 City managed only three wins against Arsenal and, despite a clear improvement in modern times, the Gunners remain a side against which City traditionally have meagre returns. Only Liverpool in the Premier League era have caused the club more consistent headaches.
City's squad, packed as it is with top-class talent, will not busy itself with historical precedent. While the fans are revisiting painful memories from the past, the players can prepare in the knowledge that they have already pocketed one straightforward win against their foes this season.
The match at the Etihad in November featured goals from Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus, with a solitary reply from Alexandre Lacazette. With Jesus still recovering from injury and Lacazette's place taken by new acquisition Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the two sides might have a different look about them this time round, but the kind of game we can expect will not differ greatly from previous encounters.
Arsenal are one of the few teams that have been prepared to face fire with fire and have not altered their traditional style to face City. This augurs well for an open, attacking final with plenty of scope for City to display the skillful possession football that has not only marked them out as one of the Premier league's most stylish operators, but also as worthy inheritors of Arsenal's mantle as the English league's pass masters.
Indeed, a City win would confirm that the reputation for slide-rule football has now been irrevocably passed on. Vastly more important than applause for pretty football, however, is the pressing need for the club to secure their first trophy under Guardiola.
After a blank start to life in Manchester, this season has promised much, but so far delivered nothing. A Premier League title must soon become reality and the club's European adventure is set to advance to the quarterfinals at least after a thumping win in Basel, but the Carabao Cup represents the immediate opportunity at hand.
City must grasp it with both hands, prove the lingering doubts redundant and begin a run-in toward an end-of-season that could still go down in history as the club's best ever. For all the promise shown over the last eight months, a reassuring victory is required at Wembley on Sunday.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.