City favored to end 35-year drought
Manchester City look to end their 35-year trophy drought in a winner-takes-all F.A. Cup final Saturday from Wembley Stadium (live on FOX Soccer Channel, 11 a.m. ET). The millionaires will square off against unheralded but stocky Stoke City, the oldest professional club in the Premier League, with a legacy dating back to 1863.
City come into the game on a high, having secured qualification for the Champions League for the first time ever after downing Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 on Tuesday. It's a major milestone for a team that was an afterthought not only in their own city but in football in general. But since the purchase of the Sky Blues by the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi - and nearly half a billion dollars in investment - City are proving to be more than just the "noisy neighbours" Manchester United's Sir Alex Fergsuon so famously disparaged.
They, of course, got to where they are by finally beating that same United in a meaningful game, with a goal from Yaya Toure in the semifinal decider, in a match that proved to be surprising. United had Paul Scholes sent off, but City were clearly the better team on the day, finally living up to the millions spent on the squad by denying United their chance to snatch the treble.
Now, City are heavily favored in Saturday's match, which might not be a good thing. City has been, to put it mildly, erratic, and worse under pressure. City collapsed utterly and embarrassingly in the Europa League, losing to Dynamo Kiev with two straight insipid performances. Against Everton last week prior, they let slip a one-goal lead that could have iced their European slot, falling 2-1. And then there was April 11th, and a 3-0 thrashing from Liverpool that seemed to signal the end for manager Roberto Mancini.
That day, a chastened Mancini took full blame, but the fact is his tactics and preparation have been under heavy fire for months now. His handling of the "un-coachable" Mario Balotelli may make the headlines, but his rift with star striker Carlos Tevez has proved far more damaging; the Argentine star is almost certain to leave the club this summer. Moreover, it's not entirely clear what type of game City is attempting to play, and City have at times looked too defensive and too adrift. In Mancini's defense, merging some very volatile personalities into a coherent side is a thankless task. Nonetheless, anything less than a trophy on Saturday could lead to his sacking.
Stoke will have no sympathy for City's issues. They have won just one trophy at the top level in 148 years of existence - the 1972 League Cup in the old First Division - so will be aching to add to what is a famously bare silverware cupboard. And Stoke are arguably the story of the FA Cup, getting into the finals via an incredible five-goal blowout of heavily-fancied Bolton.
That match, defined by goals from Matthew Etherington, Robert Huth and Kenwyne Jones happened to be the biggest semifinal win since 1939, and by far the biggest margin of victory for any team in any play at the new Wembley Stadium. So humiliating was the drubbing that Bolton publicly apologized to its fans.
Stoke are not exactly a well-liked squad around the Premier League, and a glance at the Fair Play tables will tell anyone why. They foul often, heavily and sometimes infamously: Ryan Shawcross notoriously broke Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey's leg with a viciously dirty tackle. Ramsey, who nearly lost his career and spent nine months sidelined, returned with Arsenal last week to the Britannia, where Stoke's fans booed him - for refusing to accept Shawcross's apology. As a result, "Classy" is not often a word associated with the Potters.
But Tony Pulis's men are solid and have more bite than they are given credit for. Because of the long-throw antics of Rory Delap (a genuinely deadly weapon) and the agricultural style of defending, Stoke are often caricatured as a simple side. That's a grievous misreading. While Stoke indeed do profit from set-pieces, they get a lot of production out of Jermaine Pennant and Etherington out wide, scoring more goals than people think off open play.
It is unclear if Etherington will be able to make the game-day roster, however. He has been sidelined with a hamstring tear he took in April and is battling to be fit. He joins a list of Stoke players either out or questionable: Danny Higginbotham and Ricardo Fuller are both done for the season, and key defender Robert Huth did his knee last week in their win over Arsenal. He will be a game-day decision.
Most expect this to be a taut, tense battle. City have not yet proven themselves to be adept at closing out games with ruthless efficiency, while Stoke's explosive showing against Bolton looks to be an aberration. Expect City to use David Silva and Tevez as part of a 4-3-3 to attack and stretch the Potters. It's worth noting that Arsenal, showing that same formation last weekend, were hurt badly.
One weird piece of trivia about Stoke: They actually are well-known to American soccer fans of a certain age as the "Cleveland Stokers." The old United Soccer Association, the precursor to the NASL, imported clubs whole-cloth from across Europe to play in a summer league in 1967, among them Wolverhampton, Dundee United and Aberdeen.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.