Manchester United seize the day to earn a famous FA Cup win as City lose their edge

Manchester City 1-2 Manchester United: First-half goals by Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo stunned the Premier League champions at Wembley

Miguel Delaney
Wembley Stadium
Saturday 25 May 2024 19:11 BST
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Guardiola heaps praise on Man Utd squad as Man City head into FA Cup final showdown

In an FA Cup final when Manchester City history was supposed to be made, and Erik ten Hag’s future supposed to be set, he and Manchester United lifted the old trophy by seizing the day.

The new winners were fully immersed in the moment. It may be a moment of history in itself, given how United silverware is such a surprise, but it was all the sweeter for that. The celebration of the crowd said enough. Ten Hag has the last word. The Dutch coach relished a second trophy in two years – especially if this was indeed to be his final match at the club. Belatedly, Ten Hag has at least made the best possible case to keep his job, and maybe change expectations. His team defied all expectations about this match, as well as Pep Guardiola’s recent record. The Manchester City coach was beaten in a domestic cup final for the first time since 2011, to ensure he will not enjoy English football’s first-ever “double double”, to amplify last year’s treble.

Such a record, and recent disparity, ensured United had to think and set up like underdogs. They threw themselves into that, for a 2-1 win over their great rivals that was also a reverse of last year’s final. Amid such history, and the club’s 13th FA Cup, there will be some authentic debate about the extent of a shock this is. United had finished eighth in the league, lower than Wimbledon when they beat Liverpool in 1988 in one of the biggest final shocks of all.

There were other echoes of history, as teenager Kobbie Mainoo scored the goal that ultimately sealed it. That was from Bruno Fernandes’s sublime pass, a moment to enrich any cup final.

Kobbie Mainoo slides home United’s second goal
Kobbie Mainoo slides home United’s second goal (Reuters)

The exact historical context of this is for afterwards. What really elevated United in this victory, especially with everything swirling around the club right now, was how intensely they seized the moment. It could be sensed from the first minute, with a Lisandro Martinez challenge. That set up everything that followed. Ten Hag would point to how he finally had a fit centre-half pairing for the first time in months, to produce United’s best display of the season by some distance. City, perhaps almost too sated from too many victories, offered up one of their worst.

It just didn’t look like it meant as much to them.

United’s opening goal after half an hour was a vintage case of that commitment against complacency. City hesitated, resulting in the sort of sequences of errors you just don’t associate with a Guardiola team. Rodri didn’t offer his normal control of midfield, Josko Gvardiol rashly headed back and Ortega was way off his line. It was calamitous. Garnacho, by contrast, was fully alert. He had already forced Gvardiol into the header, before leaping on it to drive the ball in. There was real conviction to a finish that could have been a tap-in.

United wanted this. They soon had even more.

If the first goal was borne of calamity, the second was pure quality. It might not have been up there with Garnacho’s against Everton for spectacle but it was probably their best team goal of the season, in what was their best team performance. Garnacho was again central to the move, albeit from scorching down the flank. He drilled the ball into Fernandes who found himself in space in the area. What followed was a divine moment, up there with any in cup final history and reminiscent of one specific goal from this same patch of land. As the ball came to Fernandes, the option was there to take a touch or a shot. He had other ideas, from superior perception. The playmaker had become aware of Mainoo on the left, and instantly played an innovative one-touch pass over for the midfielder to drill into the corner of Ortega’s net at the perfect pace.

It was like Teddy Sheringham to Alan Shearer for the goal in England’s 4-1 over Netherlands at Euro 96, but almost with more to it. The pace was sharper, the angle more difficult.

Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo scored United’s goals
Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo scored United’s goals (John Walton/PA Wire)

City’s task had meanwhile become more complicated, not least psychologically. This was the first time they had been two goals down in any match since November, and that was a dead-rubber Champions League match against Leipzig when they were already through to the last 16.

Before that, you had to go back to 19 January 2023 and that famous “happy flowers” 4-2 win, to use Guardiola’s phrase, over Tottenham Hotspur. Had they forgotten what to do in these circumstances? Had the title victory removed some edge?

They did inevitably rally, for a concerted spell of pressure after half time. Haaland, otherwise a passenger, smashed the crossbar with a shot on the turn. Walker forced a spectacular save out of Andre Onana. Julian Alvarez then poked wide when through.

It felt like that was when they had to score if they were really going to pull this off. Guardiola had to change something.

City players reflect after losing the FA Cup final
City players reflect after losing the FA Cup final (Reuters)

Kevin De Bruyne had been so ineffective that he was hauled off for Julian Alvarez. It took a while but eventually, there was impetus to City’s play. He began to test United on the wing and tested Onana from distance.

The goalkeeper, who had been putting in such a good performance, endured his worst moment in the 86th minute when a Jeremy Doku drive went through his hands.

It could have resulted in the worst possible outcome for both goalkeeper and Ten Hag. A gasp went around the ground as the board went up for seven minutes. Onana held firm in that period, though. United held on, their players throwing themselves into everything.

It means they, and Ten Hag, lift the club’s 13th FA Cup – another trophy to follow on from last year’s Carabao Cup success.

Whether it is enough for the manager to keep his job remains to be seen. This was all about the moment for United.

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