There was a time when the only reason Manchester City fans had to go to Wembley was to see a rock concert, a world title fight, the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final, an American Football match-up…almost anything other than watch their team contest major honours.
Well not any more.
The adage that he who laughs last, laughs longest – as opposed to didn’t get the joke in the first place – is more than apt for City.
For so long the butt of jokes, derisory comments and humiliating under-achievement, the Sky Blues are finally, finally putting to rest the acerbic tag of ‘Typical City’ – often well earned – for an uncanny knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Just one isolated league defeat in two seasons is evidence that the Etihad Stadium, unlike Maine Road, will never lay claim to the ‘Theatre of Base Comedy’ title, bestowed on it by the now disgraced BBC broadcaster and City fan, Stuart Hall.
And, just as it is for the repulsive Hall, City are in for a long stretch…but in City’s case one festooned with Cup Finals, silverware and Premier League winner’s pennants aplenty.
Whoever would have dared to have a dream in their heart, that the national stadium would become a veritable home-from-home for the blue eight-tenths of Manchester?
You only have to cast your mind back to April 16th, 2011, and the tidal wave of emotion that engulfed every man, woman and child in sky blue, as Yaya Toure’s goal changed City’s fortunes in such dramatic style.
The FA Cup semi final win over Manchester United was such a momentous milestone – a catalyst for self belief and impetus – that sees Roberto Mancini on the cusp of his third major trophy, in as many years as City boss.
Beating United was, to most City fans, far more significant than actually lifting the Cup against Stoke, when Yaya once again proved to be the match winner.
Of course, downing Fergie’s Cup dream was a means to an end, and seeing Carlos Tevez hold aloft the famous old trophy, resplendent in sky blue and white ribbons, reduced many a grown man to tears.
Truly it was a cathartic moment, but strangely, still did not surpass the dawning realisation at the final whistle of the semi final, that City had ‘done it’.
Now, two years on, City have acclimatised to a new mindset – one that Roberto Mancini often refers to as a ‘winning mentality’, going into big games with an expectation – rather than a hope – that they’ll emerge as victors.
It’s an obvious evolutionary step – in line with Sheikh Mansour’s sustainable vision for Manchester City – as City’s Abu Dhabi owners map out a path of unrelenting success for the foreseeable future.
As City prepare to face Wigan, there are parallels with 2011. Having overcome United, everybody – bar folk from the Potteries – automatically assumed that City would brush Stoke aside.
This year, having beaten Chelsea in an encounter of the highest quality, there is a worrying school of thought that Mancini’s men have already done the hard part and just need to turn up on May 11th.
If, for one moment, that attitude is allowed to percolate through City’s ranks then there’s every chance Roberto will be celebrating a remarkable FA Cup success…Roberto Martinez that is!
Forget any talk of ‘little old Wigan blah dee blah’ Martinez’s side play fast, attacking football and, on their day, have the measure of any PL rival. Yes, they’re presently three-points adrift in the relegation battle, but this is traditionally their purple patch of the season.
Wigan’s Spanish boss is lauded within the game and always seemingly in the mix when a big job becomes vacant in England’s top flight, so why not start the season in August like the rest of the sides around them?
He’s already being mentioned as a potential successor to the Glaswegian Gargoyle at Goodison Park, as David Moyes prepares to become the No 1 Swamp Dweller on July 1st.
Obviously not stacked with big names, Wigan should not be under estimated in the talent department.
Ex-Celtic and Villa playmaker, Shaun Maloney has emerged as Wigan’s talisman, with a direct hand in at least a dozen goals. Quell him and you shut down a lot of Wigan’s flair and creativity.
Striker Arouna Kone is a real threat in attack and will keep Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic on their toes. The Ivorian has a good pedigree having been a success at PSV Eindhoven, before enduring a fruitless time in Sevilla, prior to resurrecting his career with Levante in La Liga.
He is on track to become the club’s all-time highest scorer in a PL season.
But it’s not necessarily scoring goals, where Wigan come undone – it’s conceding too many.
Young Spanish goalkeeper Joel – on loan from Athletico Madrid – has recently edged established Ali Al Habsi out of the team, after mistakes by the Omani international cost vital goals.
At 22-years, Joel is vastly inexperienced having made barely 20 or more first team starts both in England and Spain – it’s an area City could well exploit.
A fully firing and focused City, playing at tempo and with a fluid passing game should have the measure of their less illustrious opponents. Despite being 25% down in the ‘Goals For’ column in 2013, City have a mouth-watering array of attacking talent.
They also have an abundance of experience, guile and know-how on the grand stage.
Aguero and Tevez should be the front pairing, supported by a sublime Silva and a Samir Nasri who’s suddenly remembered he IS a top notch player.
James Milner has cemented a regular starting role, providing energy, width, strength and a keen eye for goal, and it could be a toss-up between him and his fellow ex-Villain, Gareth Barry as to who starts.
And when it comes to the big occasion Mancini can go to his colossus from the Ivory Coast, with Yaya loving the vast open spaces of Wembley – usually resulting in a Man-of-the-Match performance.
City’s default back four of Zabaleta, Clichy Kompany and Nastasic – the meanest ‘D’ in the PL – will be protecting the tallest keeper in the league, with Mancini sticking with his laudable, but nonetheless controversial, decision to go with transfer-seeking Costel Pantilimon over Joe Hart.
The giant Romanian more than proved his worth with some fine stops when City were on the ropes against Chelsea, so there aren’t too many worries among City followers. However, to go public on a transfer request just three days before the Cup Final isn’t the most subtle of announcements, but ‘Pants’ probably sees it as a high profile shop window for potential suitors.
Hart is on track to his equal his, and the PL’s, existing record of 18 clean sheets in a season. If he can keep Reading and Norwich at bay, that will be 19 games without, City conceding any goals – if only they’d netted a few more…
The Final is shaping up to be one of the most lopsided affairs in Cup history at Wembley – old or new – with City having a significant 65/35% advantage on ticket allocations and purchases – hardly surprising considering the difference in the size, stature and respective home attendances of the two clubs.
City’s recent and very fortunate 1-0 win over Wigan at the Etihad would at least have dispelled any over confidence, albeit City were ‘flat’ and weakened by their semi final exertions and key injuries.
With Champions League qualification already in the bag for City, they are desperate to capture significant silverware for a third successive season. Contrastingly, Wigan could finally be set to drop out of the PL after flirting with relegation year-in-year out.
Does Martinez take it ‘game by game’ or does he prioritise vital PL points over FA Cup glory? The guess is he’ll field his strongest side at Wembley and hope to stay injury free before going to the Emirates on Tuesday night for the proverbial ‘must win’ encounter.
Whether Wembley is a ‘must win’ for Roberto Mancini to have any chance of staying on as City’s boss will soon become apparent. A hat-trick of major honours (four if you include the Community Shield) in his first three years, should surely be enough to get the nod for ‘Carry on Bobby Manc’?
No longer do Manchester City or their success-starved supporters need Tom Tom or Garmin devices to find their way to London HA9 0WS. Neither do they need any false pretexts to travel ‘darn sarf’ to the home of English football.