Will this year see Manchester City’s and Pep Guardiola’s fourth successive League Cup triumph? Perhaps, but what is certain is that it has already seen a fourth successive semi-final defeat for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United, as their noisy neighbours and this competition's holders progressed to April’s final at Wembley against Tottenham Hotspur.
Two set piece goals - one scored by the rejuvenated John Stones, the other by captain Fernandinho - saw City emerge victorious from this 184th and fiercely contested Manchester derby at Old Trafford. A Guardiola-Mourinho showpiece now awaits in the spring - moved from the usual late winter date so that a crowd could potentially be able to attend. In these strange times, it is as if City reaching the League Cup final is the only certainty.
United, meanwhile, would be happy to reach just one. Since losing at the same stage of this competition to the same opponents last year, then suffering last four defeats in the FA Cup and Europa League to Chelsea and Sevilla respectively, Solskjaer has denied that his players suffer from any sort of mental block. That may be true but victory here would nevertheless have at least stopped all talk of a semi-final hoodoo. For the fourth time in a year, they failed to take that next step.
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There was more entertainment in the opening quarter-of-an-hour than in the 90 goalless minutes these two shared last month. Both sides had the ball in the back of the net in the early stages - Marcus Rashford’s shot bounced off Stones and across the line, not long before Ilkay Gundogan bundled Phil Foden’s pass in at the other end - only for both to look up and see the flag raised against them.
With Ederson still self-isolating, Zack Steffen retained his place in City’s goal and was forced into an acrobatic, one-handed save to deny a Bruno Fernandes effort from range that was bound for the top right-hand corner. Minutes later, Dean Henderson was helpless as Kevin De Bruyne speculated from a similar distance but his strike of pure venom cannoned back off the post.
Eventually, each side allowed the other to catch their breath and a steady stream of offsides slowed the pace down further still. Assistants are instructed to keep their flag down until the end of an attack for a good reason: stop play by raising it too early and VAR may reveal that they have ended a perfectly legitimate move prematurely. But Guardiola clearly isn’t a fan of this new directive.
“This is ridiculous!”, he shouted from the touchline after a United attack was allowed to play out a move long after Rashford was caught in an offside position, the move ultimately ending in a dangerous collision between Stones and Paul Pogba. Earlier, Phil Foden had ran clear in behind the United defence, travelling from the halfway line all the way to the six-yard box, then watched a late flag go up as he rolled a finish past Henderson.
Guardiola spent the final minutes of the first half on his haunches, rubbing his head and looking rather frustrated - either with the officiating, his side’s performance or both. Despite the contest being on a knife-edge, City had struggled to create much of note - only really threatening through De Bruyne hitting the post - and United’s disciplined, organised defending. All that would change when both sides re-emerged.
United’s defence has days when it looks solid and others when it appears half asleep. That was very much the case when they collectively failed to deal with Foden’s delightful delivery of a free-kick from the left. Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw all passed the buck, inviting Stones to drift clear of the defensive line and guide the ball past Henderson with the top of his thigh. This time, there was no flag.
The onus was on United to avoid yet another semi-final defeat but City could easily have put one foot in April’s showpiece when Mahrez advanced to the edge of the penalty area and let fly with a strike that was every bit as thunderous as De Bruyne’s in the first half. It was destined for the top left-hand corner until Henderson’s intervention - a one-handed, stretching save while back-pedalling towards his own goal.
That gave United a chance but they would have to take it. The unusually-quiet Fernandes spooned an effort over. Martial tried in vain to win a penalty, but there was little to no contact as he tumbled over in Ruben Dias’ vicinity. It was Solskjaer’s turn to scratch his head and the game would soon be put out of his reach.
Again, United were undone on a set-piece. Aaron Wan-Bissaka at least dealt with the delivery this time but his header only went as far as Fernandinho, perched on the edge of the box. His strike was not as clean as those of De Bruyne and Mahrez before him but bouncing his volley into the ground made its path that little bit more unpredictable. Henderson saw it late and could not get across his goal in time before it settled in the corner. Guardiola lifted his hands in the air, knowing it was won. Solskjaer must go away and ask himself why, when on the brink, United once again lost.
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