FA Cup Final Preview: Manchester Derby takes centre stage at Wembley Stadium

Manchester City's Kyle Walker hits a header next to Manchester United's Alejandro Garnacho during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023. (Dave Thompson/AP)

Manchester City vs. Manchester United in the FA Cup final. It just had to be this way, didn’t it? 

The Blues beat the Red Devils 2-1 in last year’s final to complete the second leg of what turned out to be their historic treble. Twelve months later, Man United have a chance at revenge as they can lift their first FA Cup in eight years and prevent Man City from winning the league and cup double.  

This is only the second time in the FA Cup’s 153-year history that the same two teams have met in the final for a second straight year. The other time it happened was in 1884 and 1885 when Blackburn Rovers squared off against Queen’s Park F.C. 

Here’s what you need to know about Saturday’s FA Cup final. 

The format     

Saturday’s game is a straight knockout final, with no replays like previous rounds of the FA Cup. 

If the game is tied after 90 minutes of regulation, they will go to extra time and penalty kicks (if necessary) to determine the winner.     

Setting the stage for Saturday  

Manchester City clinched its fourth Premier League title in a row – and sixth in seven years – last weekend with a 3-1 home win over West Ham United. It wasn’t a cakewalk for the Blues, though, as they managed to just beat out Arsenal by two points in the final league standings.  

Manchester United finished eighth in the Premier League table, a whopping 31 points behind their city rivals. It was an up-and-down campaign for the Red Devils, and now they face a must-win situation on Saturday to qualify for next season’s UEFA Europa League. A loss would mean Man United won’t compete in Europe in 2024-25. 

How they arrived at the final  

Manchester City blanked Huddersfield Town of the Championship (second division) 5-0 in the third round, before edging Premier League counterparts Tottenham 1-0 in the fourth round. The Premier League’s Luton Town was disposed of in a 6-2 win in the fifth round and Pep Guardiola’s men followed that up with a 2-0 victory over fellow top-tier side Newcastle United in the quarter-finals. The Blues secured their fourth clean sheet victory in five games with a 1-0 decision over Chelsea in the semifinals last month. 

Manchester United breezed through the first three rounds of the FA Cup by defeating third-division side Wigan Athletic 2-0 and fourth-division outfit Newport County 4-2. A 1-0 win over Premier League team Nottingham Forest in the fifth round set the stage for a marquee quarter-final showdown against Liverpool, which it won 4-3 in extra time at Old Trafford. There was more drama in last month’s semifinal win over Championship side Coventry City. Man United let a 3-0 lead slip through their hands before eventually winning 4-2 in a penalty shootout. 

Manchester derbies in 2023-24 

Manchester City did the double over Manchester United in the Premier League this season. 

City earned a comprehensive 3-0 win over United on Oct. 29 at Old Trafford and followed that up with 3-1 home win on March 3. Erling Haaland and Phil Foden each scored three goals across both games for the Blues. The last time City beat United three times in a single campaign was in 1969-70. 

The key battle: Fernandes vs. Rodri 

There are plenty of intriguing one-on-one battles to keep close tabs on during Saturday’s match. But the most important could be the one that pits Manchester United’s Bruno Fernades versus Manchester City’s Rodri. 

Fernandes has been United’s best player by far this season with 15 goals and 12 assists in 47 appearances in all competitions. The United captain and Portuguese international is a talented playmaker who can turn the game on its head with an individual act of brilliance. The Red Devils will look to him to pull the creative strings and cause the Blues’ defence plenty of problems with his exquisite distribution and ability to get into the box. 

The man who’ll be charged with preventing Fernandes to get a foothold in the contest is Rodri, Manchester City’s defensive midfielder extraordinaire. The Spanish international is a pit bull in the middle of the park, a master of closing down opposing players and breaking up opponents’ attacks before they get started. He’s not the quickest player, though, so it’ll be interesting to see if Fernandes will be able to get in behind him. 

Rodri is also known for his passing ability and tactical acumen, so Fernandes will have an important defensive job to neutralize the Spaniard. If he can effectively press and dispossess Rodri, United will not only impede City’s attacks but also be in a position to hit out in moments of transition.

Players to watch  

Norwegian striker Erling Haaland is tied for second in FA Cup scoring this season with five goals in just two appearances. Incredibly, all five of his goals came in Manchester City’s fifth-round win over Luton Town. Haaland sat out the semifinals vs. Chelsea with a muscle injury, so look for him to have a big game against the Blues’ hated city rivals. 

Portuguese international Bruno Fernandes has been the MVP of Manchester United’s run to the FA Cup final with a team-high three goals and two assists in five appearances. The stylish midfielder is the heartbeat of the Red Devils’ attack and if United has any chance of upsetting City, he’ll have to be at his very best on Saturday. 

Burning questions  

Will a win on Saturday secure Dutch manager Erik ten Hag’s future at Manchester United? Or will a loss cost him his job after two seasons at the helm at Old Trafford? 

Will Manchester City still be hung over from wrapping up the Premier League crown last Sunday? Or will that just add more fuel to their competitive fire against United? 

Stats to remember  

Manchester United have won five of its previous FA Cup matches against Manchester City. But both of their losses came at Wembley Stadium – 2011 semifinals and last year’s final. 

Manchester City could become only the third team to win the league and cup double for a third time, having previously pulled it off in 2018-19 and 2022-23. A victory on Saturday would see them join Manchester United (1993-94, 1995-96 and 1998-99) and Arsenal (1970-71, 1997-98 and 2001-02). 

Manchester United have lost six of their last seven encounters vs. Manchester City (with just one win) in all competitions, including three in a row. The last time they lost four consecutive games against their city rivals was between 2013 and 2014.   

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.   

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