Chelsea, City seek much-needed boost
It feels at times as though the FA Cup is in a constant battle to prove its own worth. It’s not, of course, the same tournament it was in the 1960s, when Bill Shankly said Liverpool had to win it before it could be considered a big club: nor the tournament that provided a compendium of fairy-stories in the 1970s or fascinating finales in the 1980s. Yet when the Premier League title is effectively over by mid-April, when big sides are searching for some validation, the fabled cup does offer some genuine consolation.
When Manchester City and Chelsea meet at Wembley Stadium (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 11 a.m. ET) it will be a big occasion – and one that will hopefully restore soccer to center stage after Millwall’s fan violence marred Wigan’s 2-0 semifinal victory on Saturday.
There is pressure on both sides to produce a cup final berth. For Manchester City, this season has been a huge disappointment. The Citizens flopped badly in the Champions League and its Premier League title defense has been poor. If anything, beating Manchester United last Monday merely underlined that it should never have fallen 15 points behind the champions elect.
There have even been suggestions that Roberto Mancini’s future as City manager hangs on winning the FA Cup this season. The situation may not be quite as dramatic but with changes planned in the summer – three or four major signings are expected along with a clear-out of lesser talent – Mancini could do with emphasizing that he is the rightful man who can deliver trophies.
“I think we have the same pressure that Chelsea have, or every team that plays in the semifinals,” Mancini told reporters. "I think it is important we have the same concentration we had against United and we play the same as for the last two-three weeks. If we deserve to win we will win. If Chelsea are better they will win. This is normal in football. It is important we have a good attitude for this game."
Mancini didn’t entirely convince, though, and acknowledged that winning the FA Cup in 2011 – City’s first trophy since 1976 – had been a significant psychological barrier crossed on the way to last year’s league title.
The Italian added: "It is important for me, for the players and the club because it is another semifinal. I think it is very important and we have a chance to go into the final, to get another trophy. For this reason it is very important. I like to win the FA Cup or Premier League - it is important to win. In England, the FA Cup is an important trophy. We have this chance."
While City need success to convince itself that they’re on the right track, Chelsea knows it is still looking for a path next season – something that any number of trophies cannot hide. There is always a strange doublethink with Chelsea; it has won four of the six FA Cups since the final returned to Wembley, as well as a Premier League, a Champions League and a League Cup in that time. Yet for most of the past six years, the Blues have been in some sort of crisis, always either about sacking a manager or recovering from just having sacked one.
Faced with that backdrop, Chelsea boss Rafa Benitez, beleaguered a month or so ago, has managed to alleviate all the pressure by attacking fans and the board while announcing he had no intention of staying with the club beyond this season after the fourth-round FA Cup victory over Middlesbrough. Now, the Spaniard is carefree – in as much as Benitez, a man who seems to devise strategies for every part of his life, is ever carefree – as any manager in the league. If he wins the cup, he walks away with a medal in his pocket and his resume enhanced – and the Europa League offers a further opportunity. If his team fails, there are no repercussions because he’s leaving anyway.
Interestingly enough, Benitez’s first game in charge of Chelsea was a 0-0 tie at Stamford Bridge against Manchester City. Benitez’s side would later lose to City 2-0 at the Etihad, with Frank Lampard missing a penalty when the game was goalless. He insists he has learned from those intense Premier League matches.
"We know it'll be difficult, but it's a semifinal in a massive competition,” added Benitez. "We know what we did wrong against them in the league and we'll make sure we don't make the same mistakes. They have a manager with experience and they have confidence at the moment. We know we'll have to do our best if we want to progress."
The game is arguably a battle of the two best central midfields in England, both having out-played United in that area over the past month. City’s creative capacity, though, could be hit by an injury to David Silva who will have a late fitness test on a hamstring problem. If he does miss out, Mancini has the option of pairing Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez as a fluid strike partnership or bolstering the center by advancing Yaya Toure, as he did in the league game at the Etihad and playing Javi Garcia alongside Gareth Barry. In total, the former offers more creativity, the latter more solidity.
Whatever Mancini decides to do, the key battle is likely to be in the central area. The club that can dominate the midfield battle is most-likely to win. With Wigan waiting in the final, the feeling must be that the victor has a fine opportunity to add a trophy and salvage something from the season.