Thursday 23 May 2024

United facing football's Everest against derby rivals

Manchester United head to Wembley for the FA Cup final as probably the biggest underdogs English football's showpiece match has ever seen.

United are as long as 17/1 to win with some bookmakers, simply staggering odds in a two-horse race. Off the back of United's worst season in living memory it is easy to see why. The very last thing you'd want in that situation is to face a side who have just achieved something you never did, not even during your heyday. Namely win four Premier League titles on the bounce.
For context, relegated Wigan, probably the biggest Goliath-slayers in final history, were shorter odds in 2013. 

It begs the question: Just how do you beat the unbeatable? Exactly how do you stop this rampant, all-conquering Manchester City juggernaut? A side who haven't tasted defeat for 35 games as they put together the second longest such streak by a top flight team in history. A side hoovering up silverware left, right and centre and - despite the cloud hanging over the Etihad - staking a claim as the finest English football has ever seen. 
Another FA Cup on Saturday would see Pep Guardiola's side become the first team to complete successive league and cup doubles and give the Catalan manager his eighteenth piece of major silverware in his eight-year stint across the city. 

All this whilst United have endured our worst ever Premier League season. Fourteen defeats, eighth place and a negative goal difference. A manager seemingly on the precipice. We got into the final by the very skin of our teeth - or, more pertinently, Victor Torp's toenails. Maybe, in hindsight, elimination would have saved us from complete annihilation at the hands of this mob on Saturday. It looks akin to the task of scaling Everest in slippers and without supplementary oxygen. Getting past this City side looks to be football's toughest challenge. Arsenal's 2024 record reads W16 D1 L1 but Guardiola's men hit that achingly familiar groove of nine straight wins to surge to yet another title. City would become the first side since the Gunners (2013/14&2014/15) to take back to back FA Cups. Surely Pep must get bored? Does he not wake up one morning and think everything is all too easy? 

But there are plenty of reasons for optimism. We don't have to look far for an example of an unfancied  side usurping the overwhelming favourites and defying the odds. Give it up for Atalanta. 
The Serie A side took on a Leverkusen side pushing for an unbeaten treble, a run of 51 games, but prevailed with ease. Proof, if it were needed, than anything can happen in football. Pressure can effect you in different ways, especially in a one off game, a final, with the world watching against your fiercest rivals. It's eleven footballers against another eleven footballers. 

United are further boosted by the return to fitness and form of Lisandro Martinez, Marcus Rashford, Raphael Varane and Rasmus Hojlund. Varane got 20 minutes at Brighton whilst Licha got 60 minutes under his belt suggesting both are likely to start. Having your two best centre-backs available for your biggest game of the season comes as a boost. United - despite that eighth placed finish - finished with successive wins to boost momentum and confidence ahead of the final. 
We'll need City to have an off day and if they miss opportunities whilst playing at a level we haven't seen all season (even that might not be enough) but the fact we've been so poor during the campaign does, in itself, give us hope. We have a chance, a puncher's chance, in this one off game, a derby final, but you would fancy City 99 times out of 100. 

The players will want to salvage something from the season, it's our last shot at securing European football and the Reds will, as ever, be backed in numbers and volume at Wembley. The players will want to restore some pride and give something back. For City, it's just another game, but for us it means everything. We want this and need it more. The chance to end a dismal season with a silver lining and stopping City's slickers in their tracks. To follow in the footsteps of our Women's team and lift the world's oldest domestic knockout cup for a 13th time.

If this will be Erik ten Hag's last game in charge of United then what better way to bow out with a win in his third domestic cup final in two seasons. ten Hag's compatriot Louis van Gaal was sacked despite winning the famous old trophy, and it seems INEOS could make a change regardless of Saturday's denouement. Of course this is merely rumour at the minute but if he does leave, he will do so with an impressive cup record akin to Ron Atkinson's sides of the 80s. 

It's a well known fact of nature wild animals are more dangerous when they're frightened or wounded. They become more aggressive because they're scared and confused and believe predators may take advantage on their vulnerable state. It feels the need to protect itself at all costs and so lashes out aggressively and viciously at its nearest rival. It is the fighting survival instinct of that wounded creature United will need to conjure up from somewhere inside them in this final. 

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