It’s thirty-three years now since Manchester City last won a major trophy. The year 1976 was hardly the greatest triumph in the history of the club – the win was a narrow win against Newcastle United in the League Cup that was sealed by an acrobatic overhead kick by Denis Tueart – but nobody then would have guessed that, more than a generation on, City supporters would still be awaiting the next piece of silverware. A lot has happened to the club since then – numerous managers and owners, a fall to the Third Division, a climb back to the Premier League, a new stadium and a buyout by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nayan - but the heart of the blue side of Manchester remains resolutely glum.
The pre-season talk was all about City breaking into the top four in the Premier League this season and there is a chance that Liverpool (and perhaps even Arsenal) will lose their automatic right to a place in the Champions League, but it has not seemed likely in recent weeks. An extraordinary run of seven successive draws has seen them drop to seventh place in the table, although they stay in just about in sight of the top four. With Chelsea and Manchester United starting to put a little daylight between themselves and the rest, however, the actual championship is already starting to look like a two horse race with the rest chasing the remaining two Champions League place. For this season at the very least, a domestic cup looks like their most realistic chance of success.
Arsenal, meanwhile, continue to blow hot and cold. They swept through their Champions League group with considerable ease, but things haven’t been quite as comfortable for them in the league recently either. They brushed Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur aside, but then lost to Sunderland and were swatted away like an inconvenient bluebottle by an imperious Chelsea performance in their own back yard last weekend. Arsene Wenger remains impregnable, but if they don’t pick up a trophy this season the clock will have ticked over for five years without any silverware coming to Arsenal. Were they over-achieving in the ten years prior to 2005, or have they been under-achieving in the five years since then? A little from column A and a little from column B, one suspects, but this doesn’t lower the levels of expectation at a club whose supporters are no longer resigned to going the best part of two decades between championship wins.
For both of these clubs, then, the League Cup would be a decent opening shot at reclaiming a little bit of glory. A nice little confidence booster before launching a sustained championship bid. Arsene Wenger, however, seems to disagree. The familiar faces that lost to Chelsea at the weekend have been replaced by the second string again this evening. Almunia, Gallas, Eduardo, Arshavin and Fabregas are all missing. The likes of Jack Wilshere, Fran Merida and Aaron Ramsey replace them. It doesn’t feel like enough to cope with the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Shaun Wright-Phillips, and it isn’t. After a tight first half, City end up coasting to a comfortable victory. Indeed, Arsene Wenger may have been reasonably satisfied at the break. City attack, but Arsenal seem to soak it all up. The angriest that anything gets is an outbreak of squabbling between Mark Hughes and Arsene Wenger.
Five minutes into the second half, though, City break and Arsenal are suddenly undone. Carlos Tevez cuts in from the second half and curls the ball in off the underside of the crossbar. From here on, City look sharper and more aggressive. Emmanuel Adebayor should add a second from a low cross but seems to take his eye of the ball and it goes sailing high and wide. With twenty minutes to play, Shaun Wright-Phillips applies the killer blow, drifting easily (too easily, in truth) inside from the right hand side and driving the ball across Fabianski and into the top corner. With a couple of minutes to play, Craig Bellamy, who seems to be channelling his mischievousness in a more practical direction these days, pulls the ball back across the face of goal. Merida hits the crossbar for Arsenal in injury time, but the game is already lost.
At the end of the match, Wenger refuses to shake hands with Hughes. Petulance or frustration? Who can tell? The number of available trophies may have more or less been halved already this season for Arsenal, but at least Spurs and Chelsea both lost as well. The League Cup, at least, will be heading either to the north-west this season. For Manchester City, meanwhile, a first major trophy semi-final since 1981 and the “reward” of a derby over two legs against Manchester United to look forward to, while Blackburn Rovers (who beat Chelsea on penalties this evening) play Aston Villa in the other semi-final. Thirty-four years or five years could each seem like a long time, depending on ones level of expectation. It’s all a question of perspective.
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