JONATHAN SHALLARD at WEMBLEY —- At last, Pep Guardiola has proved himself a winner in English football after his high-cost, high-finance Manchester City juggernaut dismissed outsiders Arsenal 3-0 at Wembley to win the League Cup Final. It was his 10th triumph in 11 finals as a manager.
The competition is sponsored by a Thai power drink company and City had appeared in danger of running short of energy in their shock FA Cup exit at the hands of third division Wigan last Monday.
However, goals from Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and David Silva in front of a crowd of 85,671 brought them a fifth League Cup, their third in five seasons and a first trophy for a relieved Guardiola since his arrival from Bayern Munich in the summer of 2016.
Guardiola’s recent outbursts had suggested that the pressure ofexpectation and trophy absence was starting to eat away at his composure.
He had ranted at referees for not ‘protecting’ his players and then was involved in a half-time tunnel tangle against Wigan. His mood was further darkened when the FA charged him for wearing a political symbol – a yellow, pro-Catalan lapel ribbon – on the touchline.
But all that could finally be left to one side as Guardiola celebrated at Wembley where he had twice been a Champions League winner with Barcelona as first player in 1992 and then coach in 2011.
City have scored more than 100 goals in all competitions in opening up a 16-point lead in the Premier League and in reaching the Champions League second round but, as Guardiola had noted before the final: “We’ll be judged on how many titles we win.”
Similarly Arsenal and their own manager, Arsene Wenger, are being judged ever more harshly now on how many titles they have NOT won: a comparatively modest three FA Cups in the last 13 years, far below the expectations of fans fed a historic diet of success stretching back to the 1930s.
City and Arsenal meet again in north London in the league next Thursday but this was their first meeting in a major final though Arsenal had beaten Manchester City at Wembley in the 2014 Community Shield.
History and statistics were always against the Gunners. This was their eighth League Cup final and they had lost more than any other club (five) with only two wins to celebrate, in 1987 and 1993, and none under Wenger. On top of that their prospects of finishing in the Premier League top four are slim and thus they risk missing out on Champions League kudos and cash for a second successive season.
City made four changes after defeat by Wigan, recalling skipper Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi and Kyle Walker in defence plus Kevin de Bruyne in midfield. They missed injured Raheem Sterling in attack.
Arsenal showed seven changes from the side beaten by Ostersunds with Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka, Mesut Ozil and record signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang among the returnees.
Aubameyang wasted the chance of a dramatic start when, after only seven minutes, he failed to punish a right-wing cross from close range on the counter-attack. Keeper Claudio Bravo, diving the wrong way, made a fortunate save with his feet.
Instead it was Aguero who struck at the other end with his 199th goal for City in the 18th minute. Bravo lofted the ball downfield, Mustafi weakly allowed himself to be outmuscled by Aguero who ran on to chip over David Ospina. There was no need to call on the VAR even though Wenger and Guardiola shot angry comments across their technical areas.
City were not playing well but they were better than an insipid Arsenal and took a decisive two-goal lead in the 58th minute when captain Vincent Kompany struck after Ilkay Gundogan fired a De Bruyne corner into the heart of the penalty box.
Six more minutes and Danilo was allowed to drill a path across the face of the penalty box before David Silva angled home goal No3.
All over bar the shouting.