BEVERLY HILLS, January 07, (THEWILL) – The Blue and Red sides of Manchester met again in the EFL Cup semi-final on Wednesday for the second year in a row. The only difference this time was the change in the scheduling that made it a one-legged affair. For the second year, it was a test of wits, tactics, game plan and execution between managers: Pep Guardiola and his high-pressing football while keeping possession and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s low block, wide play and counter attack.
In getting to the semi-finals, United scaled past Everton, while City coasted away from Arsenal. Ahead of their semi-final meeting, both teams secured preparatory victories in their English Premier League fixtures. Man U defeated a strong Aston Villa side 2-1 away from home and City piled extra pressure on Chelsea with a comfortable 3-1 victory.
Those stats only made the semi-final meeting more mouthwatering. And there was more. City’s record in the competition which they had won and defended three years in a row, were impressive. They had only lost twice in 23 EFL Cup matches under Guardiola, winning 17 and drawing four. However, against Solskjaer, Guardiola was at his worst with a loss percentage higher than against any other manager he had faced at least five times with three losses out of six matches.
This set up the semi-final nicely and gave enough pep to Solskjaer coming into the game. With United on an unbeaten league streak and on the ascendancy all round, the Norwegian manager was making bold utterances and demanding a response from his charges to the trio of semi-final defeats from last season. He was quoted as claiming that defeat this time around was not an option.
In the most recent meeting of both sides, just under a month ago, United and City played a cagier game than both had managed before ending with a drab 0-0 draw. It was a better result for United at the time who were higher up than City and it made Solskjaer appreciated what he believed were signs of United’s progression to a more cohesive and goal-oriented unit.
Yet, even if not publicly, United must have had every reason to be wary coming into the EFL tie as it was venturing into City’s stomping grounds. Guardiola’s charges had progressed from their previous five EFL Cup semis in the competition under Guardiola. They were coming to stop that advancement and in that light, they were the underdogs.
Guardiola’s decision to bring in captain Fernandinho for Bernado Silva proved to be an inspired choice given the captain’s 83rd minute screamer that doubled City’s lead but so was the choice of including John Stones in the lineup with his goal and man-of-the-match performance. The Etihad team was still sidelined by the coronavirus scourge which kept some first team players and keeper Ederson Moraes out of the squad.
Guardiola seemed frustrated by the first-half performance which remained deadlocked at the break, despite the ball being in the back of the net three times in the opening 45 minutes, all correctly ruled out for offsides.
It was City’s right back Stones who undid the deadlock with his first goal in three years. Although Solskjaer’s side did have their chances, through the effervescent Bruno Fernandes and striker Marcus Rashford, it proved insufficient to overcome their local rivals, who etched another victory over United to reach a fourth consecutive EFL Cup final with a 2-0 win.
It was not a night to remember for Fernandes. The influential Portuguese midfielder had a passing accuracy of only 59.4 per cent in the City half and twice blazed off target when he had a sight of goal. United’s once more fell short. They have now lost four semi-finals in a row and they could have no complaints.
Since the other club to have qualified for the final was already confirmed on Tuesday when Tottenham Hotspur overcame Brentford’s tenacity to beat them by a similar scoreline, Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will renew their rivalry once more in the EFL Cup final in April.
In continuation of City total domination of the Carabao Cup, the men from the Etihad are now favourites to lift the trophy for an unprecedented sixth time in eight seasons when they face Spurs in the final at Wembley on April 25. Mourinho will relish that challenge and will no doubt commence a calculated series of attacks in his standard practice of mind games in anticipation of victory over one of his fiercest rivals.
Pep Guardiola, as usual will see that for what it is; Mourinho being Mourinho. His long experience playing against the Portuguese, from La Liga to the Premiership, should inform him of Mourinho’s antics. If his domination is to remain strong, he will have to be at his best in that crucial final game against everything Mourinho is prepared to throw at him for victory including the devastating striking pair of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.
After Wednesday’s win, Guardiola dedicated the victory to club legend Colin Bell. The former City and England midfielder died on Tuesday during a short illness, aged 74. In his honour, City’s players wore retro shirts bearing Bell’s number eight before kick-off at Old Trafford, where a minute’s silence was observed as a mark of respect for his passing.