Why Man City are overwhelming Carabao Cup final favourites against Aston Villa
Sunday will see the first major trophy of the English season awarded, as Manchester City aim to lift the Carabao Cup -- named after a Thai energy drink, in case you wondered! -- for a third straight year when they face Aston Villa at Wembley (Stream LIVE on ESPN+ in the U.S. at 11:25 a.m. ET, following a LIVE social show from Wembley 30 minutes prior to kickoff).
Pep Guardiola's side achieved an unprecedented domestic treble last year by winning the Premier League and FA Cup in addition to the Carabao trophy. Although they seem certain to be dethroned by runaway leaders Liverpool in the league, another trophy hat-trick is possible for City, who remain in contention for Champions League and FA Cup glory.
For Villa, meanwhile, this is an opportunity to put relegation fears aside for a week and attempt to win the club's first major honour since 1996, when they beat Leeds United in this competition. This will actually be Villa's ninth appearance in the final of a competition that dates to 1960.
Here is what you need to know about Sunday's final on ESPN+.
Do Man City just need to turn up?
City won this competition in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2019; success Sunday would take them to seven wins, one behind Liverpool's all-time record. Meanwhile, the last time they played Villa in the Premier League, Guardiola's men ran out 6-1 winners on Jan. 12, and they won 3-0 when the sides met in October.
Villa are massive underdogs and have won only once in the league since 2020 began, but they have happy recent memories of Wembley, having won the Championship playoff final in May to secure promotion. They know how to win on the big occasions, and in Jack Grealish, they have a player capable of producing a magic moment.
How good is Grealish?
The 24-year-old midfielder has nine goals and seven assists in all competitions this season, in which he has been Villa's best player and shown form that should see him debut for England before Euro 2020.
With slicked-back, Peaky Blinders hair and rolled-down socks, Grealish stands out for more than just his talent. He has been Villa's talisman for the past two seasons, and his passing skills and trickery on the ball have made him a summer target for City and Manchester United. (The comparisons to United great David Beckham haven't gone unnoticed, either.)
He can hold on to the ball for too long at times, but the rough edges are beginning to be smoothed, and he has a confirmed admirer in Guardiola.
"Villa have one of the best players in the league in Jack Grealish," the City manager said. "He's an exceptional player. I didn't know him before I came here -- he was playing in the Championship -- but honestly, an exceptional player."
Do City have any weaknesses that can be exploited?
City have conceded 29 league goals this season -- more than promoted Sheffield United -- and their defensive issues date back to their not replacing Vincent Kompany when the former captain moved into management with Anderlecht last year.
The shortage of cover at the back was further exposed when Aymeric Laporte suffered a serious knee ligament injury in August. (Laporte returned to action after a five-month layoff but has since had more fitness issues and will miss the final.) Guardiola appears to have lost faith in John Stones, so Fernandinho has shifted from midfield to play as a makeshift central defender alongside the unconvincing Nicolas Otamendi.
And so, with Guardiola lacking a convincing left-back and especially with Fernandinho playing deeper, City are vulnerable. The question is: Are Villa good enough -- or bold enough -- to pose a proper test?
Let's say Grealish & Co. score goals. Can Villa stop City at the other end?
There is no way to spin this one: Villa could be on the wrong end of a mauling! Manager Dean Smith and his assistant, Chelsea legend John Terry, might tighten a defence that has conceded a league-worst 52 goals and faces a potent City attack that has struck 68 times, which is four more than Liverpool.
With the prospect of Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus starting the game, it really does look like a mismatch for Villa, especially given City's past ruthlessness against weaker opposition. They have hit Villa for six already this season, and Guardiola's team hammered Watford 6-0 in last season's FA Cup final.
Man City also have the emotional boost provided by Tuesday's massive away win against Real Madrid in the Champions League. Having endured such a difficult and (by their standards) disappointing time in the Premier League this season, victory at the Bernabeu has revived a squad in need of morale.
Do we get VAR in the Carabao Cup Final?
Yes: we could be in for another day of video review-induced drama and controversy following the EFL's decision to use the Video Assistant Referee system for this season's semifinals and final. After all, it's not even been a week since VAR overshadowed Olivier Giroud's superb performance in Chelsea's 2-1 win over Tottenham when Giovani Lo Celso wasn't sent off for a dangerous foul on Cesar Azpilicueta.
For Sunday's final, Lee Mason is the match referee and Mike Dean has been tasked with watching the monitors at Stockley Park, the Premier League's VAR hub.
What would victory do for this Man City side's legacy?
In the Guardiola era, City have been lauded as one of the best club sides ever seen in England, and their track record backs up that claim: Victory on Sunday would take Guardiola's trophy haul to six -- eight if you count the Community Shield -- since he arrived in 2016.
What would be the significance of a major trophy for Villa?
Historically one of England's most successful clubs, Villa have won seven league titles, seven FA Cups, five EFL Cups and, in 1982, the European Cup. Beating City would hand the Birmingham-based club a return to continental competition, via the Europa League, and remind many of their once-great status.
Are we set for another League Cup final shock?
The chance of an upset in a one-off game always exists, and Villa can take heart from Swindon beating Arsenal in 1969, Stoke City overcoming Chelsea three years later and Luton Town stunning Arsenal in 1988. In 1991, U.S. international John Harkes was part of the Sheffield Wednesday side that beat favourites Man United (he also scored in a defeat against Arsenal two years later).
Recent years have been dominated by the big boys: Jose Mourinho won his first trophy in English football with Chelsea in 2005, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspired Man United past Southampton three years ago. Last season's final, won by City on penalties against Chelsea, is best remembered for the refusal of Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga to be substituted by manager Maurizio Sarri prior to the shootout.
Prediction time: Who wins?
3-0 to Man City. They have too much quality, and Villa cannot compete with them for 90 minutes. There will be no shock winners this year!