A corner of the north-west of England has decamped to north-west London. The folly of the FA’s decision to hand FA Cup semi-finals to Wembley for the forseeable future has been amply demonstrated this weekend, with the closure of the M1 motorway on account of a fire having pushed the rail system as far as it can be, and we’ll see the same tomorrow for the match between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City. The spectacle of this occasion, however, is difficult to deny. It is, of course, the first time that these two clubs have played each other at Wembley (their previous FA Cup semi-final meeting, in 1926, was played at Bramall Lane) and decades worth of local enmity adds a hint of chili powder to a match that seldom needs too much kindling to ignite.
Both teams can take their own form of solace from the history of matches between the two teams. Manchester City won the previous meeting in the semi-finals between the two sides (although how much solace can actually be taken from this is open to question), while United’s only defeat to City since Sheikh Mansour rode into town came in the first leg of a League Cup semi-final that United won over two legs anyway. City have cause to feel troubled, though. They were insipid in defeat against Liverpool on Monday night, while Manchester United continued their slow and steady trundle towards the treble two days later. Whatever is was that was wrong with City on Monday night needs to have been repaired for this afternoon if they are to stand any chance of winning this match. Both teams are missing important players – Carlos Tevez limped off on Monday evening and isn’t fit for today, while Wayne Rooney is suspended. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion, however, that City will miss Tevez more than United will miss Rooney.
For all the hype, however, a football match is a football match and the opening ten minutes are a bitty, scrappy affair with both sides showing signs of nerves in their jumpiness when in possession. After these opening skirmishes, though, the match settles into a predictable groove. City are playing defensively and United are running the show. Within thirty seconds, Dimitar Berbatov has two golden chances to open the scoring. The first comes from a mistake from Gareth Barry, which leads to the ball being threaded through to him, but Joe Hart is quick from his line and smothers his shot brilliantly. Seconds later, though, Nani crosses from the left but Berbatov, two yards out but leaning backwards, scoops the ball over the crossbar.
It takes City another quarter of an hour to wake up, and in this time they allow United to smother the midfield and utterly control the midfield to the extent that it feels like only a matter of time before United score. Slowly, though, they awaken and start to great a couple of chances of their own. Adam Johnson shoots into the side netting, Mario Balotelli shoots from distance and forces a terrific save from Edwin Van Der Sar – but a snapshot of what he is capable of – and Joleon Lescott shoots over from a corner. They’re showing signs of looking like the expensively-assembled test that they should be offering Manchester United. Vincent Kompany flashes a shot wide of Van Der Sar’s left-hand post. City’s improvement is sudden, as if the team has collectively forgotten the tactical straitjacket that Roberto Mancini had dressed them in. United end the first half with a couple of corners, but City supporters can take some degree of satisfaction from their team’s performance once they got moving. This first half has been something of a half of two quarters.
Within the opening five minutes of the second half, we see two moments that offer us a brief insight into the inner psyche of Manchester City. At one end of the pitch, Mario Ballotelli bundles the ball wide of the post. So near yet so far. A couple of minutes later, at the other end of the pitch, Joe Hart makes a dog’s dinner of a routine clearance and almost gifts the ball to Manchester United. After fifty-two minutes, it is uncharacteristic Manchester United mistakes that gift City the lead. Van Der Sar miscues a clearance, but Michael Carrick picks up the loose ball and tries to play the ball out of defence but his pass is intercepted by Yaya Toure, who cuts diagonally across the penalty area and, cool as a cucumber, rolls the ball through Van Der Sar’s legs and into the goal.
United have looked out of sorts since the restart, but now they look completely rattled. This, it feels, is City’ss moment. They pour forward. Adam Johnson fires a low cross that Van Der Sar smothers wide but could have turned over his own line. Joleon Lescott glances a header wide. It feels that they need a second goal to have any feeling of comfort whatsoever and, moreover, it feels as if they know it. At the other end of the pitch, a Nani free-kick is deflected off Balotelli’s head and Hart pushes the ball onto the crossbar. The beast is stirring again. A match which started untidily has become, as it was always likely to, a match of nerve-shredding tension, of ebb and flow and that could yet swing back to Manchester United.
Midway through the half, though, falls a hammer blow for United. Zabaleta and Paul Scholes go for a loose ball, but Scholes’ tackle is late, high and dangerous. It’s one of those tackles that falls somewhere between a yellow and red card, but there seems little complaint from the Manchester United players as Scholes trudges from the pitch and down the players’ tunnel. The urgency of the Manchester United team naturally increases as we head towards the final ten minutes, but Hart has looked confident in the City goal and Kompany, their captain today, has defended as if hewn from the living rock of Stonehenge. Every Manchester United attack reaches a point approximately twenty-five yards from goal at which it hits some sort of immovable object.
Even as the match ticks over into its closing stages, there is no way through for United. Seldom have they looked so limp in attacking positions in recent years, and this is a tribute to a Manchester City defence that has been brave and well-organised this afternoon. This time, there is no prospect of many injury-time coronaries behind Van Der Sar’s goal. City play out the five minutes of injury time comfortably and even try a couple of breaks of their own. At full-time, a brief contre-temps between Rio Ferdinand and – you guessed it – Balotelli provides a moment of low humour before the City players get away to celebrate with their supporters.
There may be no catharsis for the supporters of Manchester City until an actual trophy has been won. Tonight, though, they deserve their place in the final for a superb defensive performance against a Manchester United team that was not firing on al cylinders. There is no need to feel too sorry for United tonight. After all, they still have the Premier League to play for, and then there is the small matter of a return to Wembley in the Champions League next month. For City, though, this result may be the first genuine step on the way to realising what they should be realising, considering the amount of petro-dollars that have been spent on their team. They deserve their win and their place in the FA Cup final. In the back of the minds of all Manchester City supporters this evening, though, may remain one nagging question: what odds on their club beating Manchester United in the semi-final and then losing to Bolton Wanderers or Stoke City in the final? Such doubts, however, are for another day. Today, at least, was Manchester City’s day.
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