The FA Cup third round marks the phase of the season that is as much a test of mentality as it is talent. If the first-half of the season is a platform on which to demonstrate talent and dreams of success come the season’s end, it was a test Manchester City passed with a flourish.
Crowning their start to the season was indubitably the 6-1 evisceration of Manchester United at Old Trafford in October. As far as footballing statements of intent go, few have ever matched it. Indeed, loose tongues began to wag, pinpointing the game as the moment power shifted across the city.
So how would they cope with that pressure? City’s heritage is one of the most tragicomic in football. On the one hand, it is inflected with the pure, instinctive genius of figures such as Giorgio Kinkladze, David Silva and Colin Bell. At the same time, this is the same club that endured relegation the very next season having won the First Division title.
Manchester United, on the other hand, demands success. What the Red Devils lack in talent they make up for in force of will. The 2011 Premier League title owed almost exclusively to it. Just as romantic failure defines City, triumph over adversity is the essence of United. There was little doubt that Ferguson’s men would approach this FA Cup tie with missionary zeal. The question was whether the Citizens were mature enough to cope.
By half-time, the answer seemed to be an emphatic ‘no’. At that point they were three goals and a man down. Before the controversy, the brilliance. Wayne Rooney’s opener was a sheer force of nature. Driven by the scurrilous speculation that has dogged his future with the club, he dropped deep to collect a Ryan Giggs pass in midfield. Sweeping out wide to Antonio Valencia, his surging run into the area telepathically predicted the trajectory of the cross. The header was unerring, leaving Costel Pantilimon with no chance.
City were reeling. Their defence was haphazard and chaotic; their attacks insipid, token gestures. Danny Welbeck and Rooney again, ravenous for revenge, pounced. Deprived of calming influence Vincent Kompany by a hugely controversial refereeing decision to dismiss the Belgian for what seemed a routine challenge, City swayed and stumbled, drawn out of position and into reckless tackles by their desperation. That hard-nosed ruthlessness, the cold-headed rationality that defines champions come May remained the sole possession of Manchester United.
Solidified by the introduction of Pablo Zabaleta and Stefan Savic, City slowly, incrementally, changed the rhythm of the game. Tackle by tackle, pass by pass, they eked a foothold in the match, refusing to succumb to the humiliation which befell the Red Devils in October. Defending compactly and in numbers, they utilised the perpetual motion of Sergio Aguero in attack brilliantly.
From the precipice, City had returned. Aguero poached the goal his sterling work deserved to supplement Aleksander Kolarov’s free-kick. The blue touch paper was lit. What had emerged was a team of grit and steel; a tactically mature outfit with limitless resources of self-belief.
The final whistle came as a relief for United, rather than a mercy for the home side, as would have been predicted at half time. A glorious defeat it may have been, but this felt somehow different. Although out of the cup, City had demonstrated strength of mind and force of will which must act as a harbinger for the remainder of the season. This is a team with the mental fortitude required to win titles. Whilst the FA Cup battle was lost, one senses the Premier League is a war of attrition that can still be won.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Wigan