FA Cup Semi Final
Saturday 16 April 2011, 17.30 KO
City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany (c), Lescott, Kolarov, Barry, de Jong, Y Touré, Silva (Vieira 89), A Johnson (Wright-Phillips 80), Balotelli
Unused: Taylor, Boyata, Milner, Jo, Dzeko
Goals: Y Touré (53)
Booked: Zabaleta, Balotelli, de Jong, Kompany
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the Match: Vincent Kompany
Guest match report by Kevin Zatloukal.
Manchester City fans did not sleep well the night before the FA cup semi-final. Many tossed and turned late into the night. When sleep came for others, it was only in bits and pieces. One fan remarked that “it feels like the night before Christmas”. They were unaware of how apt that analogy would turn out to be.
To an outsider, the reason for all this anxiety may not have been clear. After all, City were the underdogs with nothing to lose. They were without their leading scorer, Carlos Tevez. Sure, United were without Wayne Rooney, but they could simply bring on the league’s leading scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, in his place. The bookies gave City less than a 1 in 4 chance of winning. Hence, an outsider might think that the pressure was off City.
Inexplicably, City fans, known for their pessimism and humor in defeat, had gotten their hopes up. They wanted this one. And the night before the match, they laid awake in bed, hopeful and anxious.
The first few minutes of the match passed without incident. Neither team could gain an advantage. The match seemed balanced on knife’s edge, unclear which way it was going to fall.
As expected in “big” matches, Sir Alex Ferguson had chosen to play only one striker, though he had been more adventurous recently. He could especially afford to play with two strikers when one of those was Rooney, who can effectively function as a midfielder as well. Without Rooney, he went with the more conservative approach.
Roberto Mancini had also opted for his usual formation, which has a lone striker. With ten midfielders on the pitch, it was bound to be congested there, and neither team could find a way through early on.
After a few minutes, the City players began to show that they, like the fans, were up for this match. They were energetic, pressing in defense, and starting to find space from which to attack. The first chances in the game came to City.
A few minutes later, momentum shifted sharply and suddenly to United. Berbatov had two incredible chances, both within the 6 yard box. Both came within the space of a minute, but neither produced a goal. Like tearing off a band-aid, it was over before fans even felt the pain, but it left hearts racing.
The first shot came on a defensive error from City. Lescott cleared the ball right to United’s Carrick. With quick one touch passing, the ball moved from Carrick to Scholes to Park to Berbatov, making a run through the center of the defense. He went one-on-one with the keeper, but Hart saved it brilliantly, the ball bouncing out for a corner.
Quickly, United took the corner short, Evra passing to Nani. Nani sent Zabaleta the wrong way and then passed across goal. Berbatov saw it and made a run in, followed closely by Kolarov. Berbatov, Hart, and Kolarov all converged on the ball. Berbatov got a foot to it first but somehow sent it soaring up over the post from only 3 yards in front of goal.
Had it gone in, it would have been a typical goal from United, who seem crouched like a cat, waiting to pounce on any error.
United kept up the pressure and held the momentum for 15 minutes still. They produced more chances (though none like the first two), while City managed none.
Soon, though, City had seized the initiative again. They attacked and made chances. Shots came from Barry, Balotelli, Lescott, and Kompany. The whole team continued to press in defense. Johnson and Silva both intercepted United passes.
City were taking control in part due to Mancini’s tactics. He stood on the touch line waving players forward, encouraging them to move up and attack. He pushed the defensive line forward, keeping United further away from City’s goal and City closer to United’s.
Of course, all this attacking comes with risks in defense. In particular, it makes the team more vulnerable to balls over the top. However, Berbatov doesn’t have speed to easily exploit that in the center. Nani and Valencia would also be threats on the wings. But Mancini bet that Zabaleta and Kolarov could keep them in check. And so far, they had done just that.
United were not done yet, though, and as time ran out in the first half, they managed to create more chances. Still, City were the better team, and City fans were starting to believe. In the final minutes of the half, City supporters were singing loudly.
The more pessimistic fans had been anxiously counting down the seconds until the half-time whistle, but during the break, optimism was again setting in. City had held off the cat for one half. Could they do it again? City had created some chances. Could they nick a goal?
If the fans had again filled with belief, so too had the City players. They came out for the second half full of energy, while United’s players looked flat. City were getting forward, attacking as Mancini had instructed. And they were pressing relentlessly in defense.
Seven minutes into the half, that pressing came center stage. United played the ball back to the keeper, to safety, but four City players were in and around the penalty box. This time it was City who were the cat waiting to pounce.
The attempted clearance by van der Sar left something to be desired, and Silva was there to get a foot to it. The ball bounced to a United defender who passed sideways to Carrick. Carrick tried to quickly pass it up to Scholes, but Yaya Touré was right there applying pressure. He intercepted the ball, and in a burst of pace and power, went past Carrick and then Vidic. Touré put the ball between the legs of van der Sar and into the back of the net.
City fans at Wembley and watching all over the world went wild. Touré ran and leapt toward the corner flag. Adam Johnson was the first to him, and he piled on top. Then the rest of the team joined.
The game was far from over, though. And City fans perhaps know best that this is precisely the moment when United are the most dangerous. They push even harder and take the game back from you.
Instead, City refused to cede momentum. Mancini’s men continued to attack and press. They made more interceptions and created more chances. Balotelli, Lescott, and Johnson all had shots.
Little was working for United, so Sir Alex Ferguson decided to move to a more attacking formation. He removed Valencia, who had contributed little, and brought on a second striker in Javier Hernandez.
Despite the obvious risks from Hernandez’s pace, Mancini’s men continued to get forward, attack, and play high up the pitch. City still had the momentum, but this was something to worry about. However, the worry did not last long.
Scholes and Zabaleta went for a ball with boots high. Zabaleta got there first. Scholes brought his boot over the ball and planted it hard into Zabaleta’s thigh. The ref pulled out his red card and sent Scholes to the dressing room. Cuts and raised bruises were visible on Zabaleta’s thigh, but he continued to play.
Finally, some relief came to nervous City fans. It looked like they were going to pull out the historic win.
But the anxiety was not over yet. Even at 10 men, United continued to push hard. City were tired and their pressing had slowed. United started to get chances.
Mancini, who had been urging them forward throughout most of the game, was now yelling at his forwards to get back and defend. Though clearly tired, City were still the team that wanted it more. Even with 5 minutes of added time, the defense that came through in so many matches could not be breached this night.
Three… two… one… jubilation!
Coaches and players on the bench spilled onto the field, embracing. In front of the cheering City fans, they turned their backs and did the Poznan.
Mancini and his men knew how much this meant to City fans. City reach their first FA cup final in 30 years. If they win, it will be their first FA cup since 1969 and their first major trophy in 35 years. The gift that fans had been waiting for all that time had finally been delivered. Fans who had supported this club through years of ups and downs were hit by a wave of emotion. Grown men could not hold back the tears.
Of course, City hope that this great victory will be the first of many to come. But even when the trophy cabinet is bursting at the seams, this win will not be forgotten. This win was special.