A Cup final to remember, that.
A four goal thriller with three of the finest goals you’re likely to see in a single match this season; and with a trophy on the line and in Wembley, no less.
In a match that became Sergio Aguero’s return from injury, his striking partnership with Dzeko did little harm to Sunderland, as the Bosnian forward looked uninterested in partaking in the affair while Aguero looked (understandably) out of form.
When the halftime score read Sunderland 1 – 0 City, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the earlier match between these sides at the Stadium of Light. After all, Phil Bardsley scored an earlier goal from a tight angle after a long ball allowed him to get the better of Demichelis and to beat Pantilimon at the far post. Sound familiar?
Poyet again used a narrow midfield three to counteract Fernandinho and Yaya in the center of midfield, while asking Adam Johnson and Jack Colback to protect their respective fullbacks on the outside. Again, just as before, Ki was incredible in the heart of Sunderland’s midfield – indeed, with each passing (pun intended) performance, it grows harder and harder to understand how the South Korean was ever allowed to be loaned from Swansea in the first place. And while his (as well as Cattermole’s) performance waned as the match wore on, he was an influential player in the first fifty-five minutes.
With almost an hour of similarities between this match and the aforementioned League match, I wondered if the result would be the same: City control the possession but rarely trouble the keeper while Sunderland score on a well-executed corner and City ultimately never break down the deep defensive block.
But alas, Pellegrini had tricks up his sleeve . . . oh wait, no – City’s world class players simply scored, well, world class goals. The quality, technique and perfection of the two goals – struck just inside two minutes of each other – were ultimately the difference between the two sides. Yaya’s goal especially felt like the Club’s most important player – and one of City’s great big game players -- taking the game by the throat and saying "Not today, not like this" and forcing brilliance where it seemed most unlikely.
At this moment, a unique challenge now lay before City’s (mostly) laid-back manager: now up one goal, with the collective anxiety of the City fan-base having rapidly transformed into euphoric joy, Pellegrini was tasked with protecting that all important one goal lead – a challenge that in hindsight, should be recognized as a watershed moment. In this game of chess, the next moves could win – or lose – the first trophy of his career.
So up gets his assistant, taking the numbers to the fourth official, and moments later we see in red, #16 and in green #15. And while it was likely always the plan to take Aguero off at around the 60th minute mark, Pellegrini most assuredly shifted his mindset, replacing his star striker not with another striker (which would have surely been expected had Nasri not scored) but with Navas instead.
And while it’s not the most shocking surprise that a manager would take off a striker for a winger in effort to see out the game, it does mark a shift in systems – and one that would surely have been second guessed if Sunderland had managed to score an equalizer. The tactical chess game had begun, with Pellegrini making the first move.
Poyet responded rather quickly, waiting just three minutes after City’s first change to make a double substitution of his own: off came Larsson (deployed as a central midfielder) and on came Fletcher, a striker; off came Adam Johnson (a winger), giving way for Craig Gardner (a central midfielder). And while the players were different in positions, it didn't produce much of a tactical shift as Borini moved to the right side of midfield where Johnson had been previously and Gardner took Larsson’s role in midfield.
And to Sunderland’s credit, they responded well after seeing all their hard work undone in a matter of two magical moments. For fifteen minutes they played well, having been forced out of their defensive shell in the pursuit of an equalizer, the best chance coming when Ki forced Pantilimon to parry his long range effort out for a corner.
Sensing his side were close, Poyet elected to use his final change, bringing on Giaccherini in place of the tireless Cattermole, an offensive change that moved Sunderland from a 4-5-1 to more of a 4-4-2 as Borini moved back up top, forming a partnership with Fletcher. Time for Pellegrini to respond, and respond he did. Off comes the peerless Silva and on comes Javi Garcia, the last of Pellegrini’s shift to a defensive (or is it?) formation.
City were now playing a 4-2-3-1, with Garcia as the holding midfielder, Fernandinho assuming the box-to-box role, and Yaya – now flanked by Nasri and Navas – moved up into the #10. It’s a formation that sacrifices a striker to find balance and defensive stability, but it also frees Yaya from most-defensive responsibilities and unshackles Fernandinho from his defensive shield duties, allowing the Brazilian more license to move forward. And so even as it finds balance, it opens up entirely new offensive possibilities.
In the end, Navas finished off a glorious counter-attack just moments after Fletcher butchered Sunderland’s last great chance to equalize. And so City’s first trip to Wembley since the FA Cup Final defeat to Wigan ended with a trophy – but don’t talk of redemption or revenge, because this was Pellegrini’s moment, and one he deserves to be recognized for.