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FA Cup Final preview: Manchester City v Stoke

LONDON ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16:  A detailed view of the FA Cup sponsored by Eon at the Leyton Orient FA Cup Media Day at Matchroom Stadium on February 16 2011 in London England.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
LONDON ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 16: A detailed view of the FA Cup sponsored by Eon at the Leyton Orient FA Cup Media Day at Matchroom Stadium on February 16 2011 in London England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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With Champions League qualification now having been assured with victory against Tottenham, focus now turns to the FA Cup, of course City's first since 1981.

A common question as the season progressed (as it was last season) posed by fans was whether Champions League qualification or hoisting a trophy was the more preferable. The consensus view seemed to be that a top four finish seemed to be the majority choice, almost certainly down to the fact that the importance and long term benefits that Champions League participation brings outweighs the more short-term success that winning a Cup competition offers.

However, and there are a number of reasons for this, but now the FA Cup Final is upon us, there is a feeling that this is undoubtedly the more important and there is no doubt that attention very quickly moved on from Tuesday towards the prospect of Wembley.

Firstly, Champions League football was attained far easier than anticipated (City have remained in a top four spot since the fifth game of the season) and unlike last season, the game against Tottenham was not the winner takes all showdown Sky Sports so sorely hoped for. Secondly is the fact the FA Cup Final - whilst having to navigate five rounds to get there - has all the importance placed singularly on just one game, rather than over the course of a season where there is of course margin for error. Despite less reward, the magnitude of the occasion is far greater. And thirdly, there is long trophy drought. When the ADUG money rolled in, the expectation was that success would follow but despite the progress and strides taken, the impact of landing that trophy cannot be underestimated: not just in terms of ending the barren run but in terms of a shift in mentality - something that a top four finish alone would not bring.

Despite the inconsistencies and frustrations of this season - there is a palatable sense that a far greater challenge in the Premier League and Europa League should have been mounted - to end this season with a top four finish and FA Cup win would be more than expected. 

Micah Richard's performance against Tottenham was surely enough to cement his place in the starting line-up whilst if it, as we are led to believe he will be, Gareth Barry will slot into the midfield.  Team selection therefore appears to centre around just two positions: out wide and up front. Adam Johnson has started of late, but his performances have dipped and with Stoke posing a threat out wide (lessened with Matthew Etherington's injury of course) James Milner may well be preferred.

So who plays up front? Edin Dzeko has started of late and shown signs of promise, but in the semi-final - with success - Mario Balotelli led the line and may well get the nod. The big question though will surround Carlos Tevez. Cutting a frustrated figure on Tuesday night, his glances across to Mancini suggested he wanted more time than the ten or so minutes afforded. Hamstring injuries are notoriously unpredictable in terms of recovery, and although he may well be back in full training, will he be risked from the start?

The assumption was that he would be a distraction leading upto the game, but there are no signs of this as yet. There is a very valid argument that if he is fit then he has to play. Whilst the side has performed well in his absence, they are not the better for it and Tevez brings such a variety in terms of play that neither Dzeko nor even Balotelli possess. A big call for Mancini then. The decision on who starts up front could also affect the formation in terms of whether Yaya Toure reprises his role from the semi-final as an auxillary striker or plays as a more orthodox midfielder with David Silva more advanced.

So what of Stoke? Much-maligned of course, but is this a mis-representation? Their fans, players and managers alike certainly think so. Their pass completion (63%) , preference for long balls (71%) and lack of possession (38%) though do point to the fact that although their play may now be more refined, their 'bread and butter' will still be the direct game.

Stoke also pose a threat late in games (as City found out at the Britannia Stadium this season) and have notched 14 goals in the final 15 minutes of games during 2010/11 and games involving them are invariably tight - ten of their defeats this season have been by a solitary goal.

They too have injury concerns, notably with Robert Huth (likely to be fit) and Matthew Etherington (less so). Etherington will be a big blow should he not be fit and this will increase the pressure on Jermaine Pennant, although he will have noted Aaron Lennon's success this week against Pablo Zabaleta.

With City's top four spot guaranteed, Stoke are guaranteed Europa League football but this won't sate their desire or appetite for victory. They also have the upper hand of late, with City having won just once in the past six encounters (Mancini's first game in charge) - although three of these have been drawn 1-1 - and were the last team to beat City in the competition.

Having achieved their seasons objective on Tuesday night, City are now presented with an opportunity to go one step further and add a long awaited trophy to cap off what would be a season where expectations were not achieved, but surpassed. At times this season, City have been guilty of not being able to step up when it really mattered and where coming away with a win was essential.

However, and credit should be given where it is due, during the final stages of the season following the disappointing defeat at Anfield they have stepped up. Tottenham may have faltered in the Premier League but City have got the results when needed and the reaction to Tuesday's win showed that there is a resolve and desire within the squad - traits that they hope will go a long way towards winning the FA Cup.