KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Manchester City served a reminder that they are still a potent force in English football by defeating Aston Villa 2-1 to win the League Cup for the fifth time in seven seasons and third in succession under Pep Guardiola.
City may have been outstripped by Liverpool in the Premier League title race but they left no doubt about their continuing hunger for trophies. This was their eighth in all under the ex-Barcelona and FC Bayern coach, if one counts – as he does – two season-opening Community Shields.
Man of the match from City’s midfield was young England starlet Phil Foden. That was a positive sign to cheer England manager Gareth Southgate amid concerns over the Euro 2020 prospects of his star strikers Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford.
The League Cup may have appeared like something of a possible consolation prize for City but manager Guardiola had always insisted he and his players would take it as seriously as any other game.
He said: “Three times in a row is a big success. It’s the consistency, incredible. Awesome. We struggled in the first minutes and the last ones. They had two clear chances in the first minutes but we played really well, especially in the second half.
“We’ve won a lot. I tried when we arrive, every game we play we try to win it, every competition we try to win it, and three times in a row, being here and winning is great.”
City came to Wembley off the back of the Champions League victory at Real Madrid which was probably their finest performance of the season.
The only cloud on the horizon was the ongoing concern over the two-season European ban for breaching financial fair play regulations. City have appealed but a timescale for the process has yet to be agreed.
Guardiola has insisted his players have not been distracted. Their Wembley record spoke for itself. They had won their previous five domestic finals with a collective goal margin of 16-2.
That was a massive contrast to Villa. This time last year Villa were 13th in the second division but then they beat Derby 4-0 to spark a 10-game winning run which led ultimately to a play-off win over Derby again and promotion. Not that their Premier League campaign has been easy. They are next to bottom of the table and endured the worst possible preparation for the final with a 2-0 defeat at Southampton.
City dominated most of the first half, as expected, and took the lead after 20 minutes through the inevitable Sergio Aguero. Midfielder Rodri’s long cross was pushed back across goal by Phil Foden and the Argentinian struck his 10th goal in his last six starts against Villa. It was the first time Villa had been behind in a match in the tournament this season.
Six minutes later Foden came close to a goal himself but his shot flew narrowly wide after he cut inside after collecting a pass from Oleksandr Zinchenko.
City extended their lead on the halfhour though they needed a stroke of luck. Referee Lee Mason awarded City a corner but TV replays showed that, clearly, it should have been a goal kick. Villa’s defenders were still complaining as City took the corner, Rodri headed for goal and the ball clipped off Ilkay Gundogan and into the net.
At this point Villa fans must have feared the sort of six-goal thrashing City handed out to Bournemouth in the FA Cup last season. Instead their team pulled minds and bodies together and pulled one goal back just before the interval through Mbwana Samatta after John Stones lost his footing.
Tanzanian Samatta was playing only his fifth game for Villa since his January arrival from Genk.
City had started without Kevin de Bruyne, their man of the match against Real Madrid. It was both a warning to Villa and a compliment to their competitive efforts when Guardiola brought the Belgian into the action as a second-half substitute. City’s substitutes’ bench was worth a total of £330m.
Immediately De Bruyne had an effect, at the heart of a steady series of goal-threatening attacks and corners. Villa struggled to hold out and Marvelous Nakamba was lucky to escape a red card for a heavy tackle on Aguero.
As long as Villa were only one goal behind they remained in the game. They almost equalised with five minutes to go. Manager Dean Smith and assistant John Terry held their heads in their hands as a header from Belgian defender Bjorn Engels was psshed against a City post by keeper Claudio Bravo.
City were home and dry – again.