By Charlie Batten
It’s been a rocky season for both Manchester City and Aston Villa with City arguably losing the title race by Christmas and Aston Villa struggling in 17th place. However, both have found themselves in the EFl cup final and both will be desperate to get their hands on the cup.
For Pep Guardiola’s team, this season has so far been a huge disappointment. After last year’s stunning title race, this year they’ve seemed tired and frankly, a class below Liverpool. They already have 6 losses in the league, compared to 4 last season, and injuries to Laporte and Aguero have certainly held them back.
Regardless of all that they have still managed to make their way to the EFL cup final for the fourth time in 5 years after beating Manchester United over two legs. The first semi-final saw City playing at their best by slotting 3 past United in the first half with the pick of the bunch being Bernardo Silva’s curler from outside of the box. They were still caught out though by a well worked counter-attack finished by Marcus Rashford that shows City still have their problems which Villa could exploit.
When it came to the second leg at the Etihad the result seemed almost certain and after City’s positive start you would have thought they would score three in the first half again. Surprisingly, City failed to take their chances and in the 35th minute Matic punished them with a well-timed half-volley. City were shaky for a bit but still managed to not concede any more goals, which was helped by a Matic red card meaning they’re in the final once again.
Pep will be thinking a lot about his team selection for the game and whether to go all out and play his best players or maybe play a few young players. He does have the bonus of Laporte and Aguero being fit again which strengthens the team massively, but will he play them for the final with fixtures against United in the league and Real Madrid in the Champions League looming. This could also provide a nice opportunity for the departing David Silva to win a piece of silverware as captain before he leaves in the summer. Young players such as Phil Foden and Eric Garcia could also feature in City’s attempt to finally play good quality youth players.
Aston Villa defied many odds by making it past Leicester to get to the final. Leicester seemed like the likely winners of this semi-final after their successful season, but their recent loss of form can be partly to blame for their loss to Villa. Villa are in a difficult position this season with some good performances, often led by captain Jack Grealish, yet still find themselves 17th in the League and many predict them to go down after Watford’s recent resurgence. This means that a cup win could turn their fortunes around and send a message to the rest of the league that they’re not going down easy.
They certainly showed a fighting spirit in their semi-final clashes with Leicester. The first leg began with Leicester on top and they could have been 2 goals up after Jamie Vardy had 2 chances saved by Ørjan Nyland. Then on the 28th minute, right-back Frédéric Guilbert found himself on the end of a cross and put Villa 1-0 up. Leicester took back control but didn’t do anything with it until the 74th minute where Villa were exposed after lazy passing and Kelechi Iheanacho levelled the game up.
The second leg saw Villa strike early with Matt Targett putting Dean Smith’s team 1-0 up in the 12th minute. Nyland made vital saves again with the best being a fingertip save pushing the ball onto the crossbar from a Youri Tielemans shot. Leicester dominated the ball for much of the game which led to Iheanacho scoring another equaliser in the 72nd minute after an impressive attacking move. With extra-time and penalties looming, an amazing Ahmed Elmohamady cross put Trézéguet in for a dramatic stoppage time winner which secured Villa’s place at Wembley.
The biggest decision for Dean Smith is deciding which goalkeeper to play for the final. Nyland has proven himself to be a reliable keeper with two vital performances in the last round, but the incoming Pepe Reina could take his sport. Reina offers an experienced keeper who has already won the EFL cup with Liverpool back in 2012 and isn’t a bad keeper either. Smith could choose to use many of the players who featured in their play-off win back in May as they’ve already won a big final at Wembley. Villa will also have to rely on new striker Mbwana Samatta who may not have adapted to English football by the time the final comes around. He could however repeat Manolo Gabbiadini’s 2 goals in the 2017 final for Southampton on only his third appearance for the club and become an Aston Villa legend after being at the club for just over a month.
Overall, I can’t see City losing the final. They’re one of the best sides in Europe and playing teams like Aston Villa should be easy victories. With Villa’s defensive frailty City should be able control the game and score at least 3 especially with the likes of De Bruyne, Aguero and Sterling. However, one of their biggest problems this season is killing off teams which has led to them dropping points so if they don’t kill them game off quick, they could allow Villa to come back into it.
With this said, I think it would be foolish to not to say that City are favourites to win with the fact they are a level above Villa and that they’ve won 3 of the last 4 EFL cup finals. But Villa could still cause a huge upset by exploiting the arrogant City and continuing the spirit of their play-off win against Derby.