FA Cup Final Preview: Man City vs Watford
May 17, 2019
Being a Manchester City fan is pretty mint at the minute. We’ve just witnessed our team retain the Premier League in the most extraordinary title race in living memory, and have a shot at a historic domestic treble.
While transfer sums, FFP allegations and the moral obligations fans have towards their heads of state owners and debated furiously in the dignified realm of football twitter, many fans outside the digital landscape are simply enjoying one of the best teams of our generation. The future is indeed looking good for the Sky Blues, which is why it might be surprising to hear that my mind’s currently preoccupied with history.
This season, I’ve constantly found myself looking back at the beginnings of City’s journey to domestic domination. The Sergio Aguero goal is always a popular destination when I’m strolling down memory lane, so to Vincent Kompany’s derby winning header and Edin Dzeko scoring four at White Hart Lane, a particular favourite of mine. But amongst all these glorious instances, one moment sticks out for me. A goal by one of the most important names in the club’s history.
Beginnings of a Fairy-Tale
It was 2011 and City were still suffering a trophy doubt that had lasted over three decades. We had been taken over, yes, bought the best players seen in City colours for years, but we were still without silverware. I had never seen my team win anything and, despite all the positivity for the future, I wasn’t sure I ever would. My doubts were proven wrong though, as City stormed their way to an FA Cup final. At the time, my expectations were significantly lower than they are now. Watching City beat United at Wembley was enough for my then fourteen-year-old self. But we were in a final, an actual final. And we were playing Stoke!
Other fans of the top teams might not understand the unique perspective following City gives you. I spent my entire childhood preparing myself for years of constant hurt and disappointment. Then, just as I had come to terms with that, we were bought out by foreign millionaires and elevated to elite status. It was crazy. My dad and I didn’t get tickets, but our old Panasonic in an East Mancunian terraced house felt just as good as the fabled Wembley arches on the day. It was a nervy match, with Stoke showing that hardened resilience they’ve become famous for. It took nearly 75 minutes of what was the most nail-bitingly average match I’ve ever seen, but eventually, Yaya Toure popped up and absolutely walloped one in. Cue jubilant celebrations.
Seeing Yaya thrown into the air by his old teammates last weekend took me there again. Because, even after four Premier League titles, a record-breaking 100 points season and countless other accolades, the prospect of a cup final still sends shivers down my spine. I’ve been hurt by the FA Cup before, the name Ben Watson will forever be engrained in my mind, but without it, City wouldn’t be the powerhouse they are today. And now there is a chance to make more history, the first domestic treble ever won in England. For Pep and his men, it might just be another trophy, which is fine because they’ll still go all out to win it. But, for the fans, there is something magical about the FA Cup.
Watford After Their Moment of Magic
I shouldn’t forget that there is another club involved, one that a win would be equally historic for. Watford don’t have the stature their opponents have developed, but they have established themselves as a more than decent Premier League side. It is a real success story for a club that hasn’t always been the most stable. They’ve had a plethora of managers since returning to the Premier League, but this constant change has actually helped the club stay afloat. Now, they’re in with a chance of glory and there is reason enough to suggest they might do it.
There is an argument that Watford might have a mental advantage here. City are coming off the back of an incredible season, but one that has pushed them all the way. There is bound to be some exhaustion, not just physically but mentally. Being a fan has been draining enough, I can only imagine what it’s like for the players. There is a feeling that City’s work for the season is done, they have beaten their biggest rivals and won the League. The FA Cup is almost an afterthought, not because they don’t want to win it, but because it can’t possibly compare to the emotional heights they’ve been taken to this season.
For Watford, this is quite simply the biggest game of their season, and perhaps the biggest in living memory for the fans. You cannot overstate what winning a trophy means to a fanbase like Watford. Wigan may have been relegated in the season they won the FA Cup, but ask any of their fans if they’d trade the title for an extended stay in the Prem and I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find any who would. I’m not saying that Pep and co won’t be fired up for the final (they absolutely will), but Watford will do everything humanly possible to win.
Watford have a decent squad, not as good as City’s but enough to cause some damage. They are never going to outplay their rivals, but belief can be such a powerful thing. It can grant you the extra burst of energy to close down or give the confidence to hit one from an unlikely position. Those kinds of half chances are the moments they will have to take advantage of. It will be difficult, but only a combination of hard work and sheer will see them take home the cup.
Routine XI For City
Leroy Sane has fallen mighty out of favour as of late and I don’t think he’ll be picked here. The German has looked a little out of form and Pep has seemed to favour his impact off the bench recently rather than right from the off. Instead, I think we’ll see Raheem Sterling operating on the left, with Bernardo Silva working the right. Fitness permitting, Sergio Aguero should start up front.
The absence of Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne looked like it might be a killer for City’s season, but Guardiola has coped without them. Ilkay Gundogan has filled in for Fernandinho expertly, operating in a much more defensive capacity than he typically would. The veteran Brazilian is lacking match fitness and is still a major doubt for this clash, so I expect Gundogan to start in his stead.
De Bruyne is apparently doing much better and if he can start, he will. Despite David Silva having a wealth of experience in cup finals, I actually think Phil Foden might start. The young Englishman has stepped up to the plate whenever asked and has contributed massively to City’s cup campaigns this season.
Guardiola has a lot of options in defence and we have seen him constantly tinker with his backline over the past nine months. The repeated inclusion of Vincent Kompany at the latter end of the season has a come as a surprise to many after not featuring much earlier on. However, the Belgian is a natural leader and always turns up in the most important moments. The physical presence of Troy Deeney might call for someone of Kompany’s stature and I think he’ll start with Aymeric Laporte alongside him.
Oleksandr Zinchenko has been something of a revelation this season and is now first choice at left back. On the right, Kyle Walker is probably the favoured choice. Ederson will, of course, start in goal.
Midfield Key For the Hornets
Watford have a few injury concerns of their own to contend with, though Javi Garcia has most of his main men available. Sebastian Prodl and Domingos Quina are out with knee and shoulder issues respectively, but Etienne Capoue did return to the starting line-up in their final Premier League game of the season. His presence is a major boost for the Hornets, but he will have to be at his best to combat City’s explosive offence. He’ll sit in front of the backline alongside Abdoulaye Doucouré, and the two can be a formidable duo.
The defence will have to count on the midfield pair to help them on what I imagine will be a very difficult day. The good news is that Jose Holebas has had his red card from Watford’s previous match rescinded and will start at right back, with Kiko Femenia on the left flank. Craig Cathcart and Christian Kabasele will be called upon to marshal the defence in the centre.
While Ben Foster is first choice in net, Heurelho Gomes will almost certainly start. He’s been Watford’s designated cup keeper for the season, which is to be the last of his career. I’m not sure Garcia has any say in the matter, as Foster has already confirmed he’ll refuse to play if picked.
Watford like to have two strikers supported by two attacking midfielders, and the personnel in this set-up has remained the same for most of the season. Will Hughes and Robert Pereya will be the two called upon to provide the creative output, no small task considering they might not have too much of the ball to work with. Gerard Deulofeu has been converted into an out and out striker this year and will partner the Watford legend that is Troy Deeney.
If this were a league match, there would be no doubts about the favourites. As it is, Manchester City are still very much the fancied party, but the FA Cup is no ordinary competition and a final isn’t a normal match.
Watford aren’t one of the top six, but there are one of the best sides outside it and the majority of City’s losses this season have come from those kinds of games. As I’ve mentioned, the mental aspect of these fixtures is so, so important. Watford will be able to play unburdened by the weight of pressure or expectation which might free them in a creative sense.
You look at the stories that have come out this week about City, plus the exhaustive campaign they’ve had, and there is potential for a slip perhaps. City should still win on the day, but I think it will be a difficult task against a disciplined, motivated Watford side.
Manchester City 2-1 Watford – 8/1 with SportNation
Find all your FA Cup betting odds
Cyrus has been writing about sports and many other topics for major publications over the past five years. Now working in digital marketing, he spends his days arguing over football and dreaming of his beloved Manchester City winning the champions league.