Man City cement domestic dominance with FA Cup victory which provides no clues on how to stop them

Manchester City players celebrate their comfortable win over neighbours  (AP)
Manchester City players celebrate their comfortable win over neighbours (AP)

Manchester City claim their second double and the 13th in football history, but it says much about the scale of this Abu Dhabi project that such feats were almost of secondary concern on the day. Much more satisfying for them was that they beat their greatest rivals to the FA Cup, while claiming the victory that now puts them on the brink of equalling Manchester United’s unique achievement of a treble.

You couldn’t quite say that City never looked back after Ilkay Gundogan scored what was by far the quickest goal in FA Cup final history but, bar a late rally that saw Erik ten Hag’s side hit the bar, this wasn’t quite the grand test ahead of the Champions League final that would have been anticipated.

City mostly kept United at arm’s length, principally because David de Gea’s defence decided to give Gundogan so much space. He needed no invitation to use it, scoring the goal that won City’s seventh FA Cup. The German has already proved himself one of Pep Guardiola’s most important players, particularly in that title run-in, but he has now written himself into the folklore of the oldest competition in football.

Things have of course changed a lot from so many of the decades that made that folklore. The trophy has a sponsor that is now an airline from the United Arab Emirates, and it is a club owned by the state’s most powerful emirate that again claims it.

There may be much greater discussions to be had about what that means for the game – especially as regards the growing dominance of this club – but there is no real lesson to this game. It was an eventful FA Cup final but not an especially instructive. The result just reflected where the two teams are. City are now a wealthier club and just had too much for United.

Ten Hag’s side might have given “everything” in the way he promised but it was not enough to stop City, something that is increasingly the role for United and everyone else. A good season for the Dutch coach does not quite become a great one, and instead ends on a sour note.

Gundogan’s role, meanwhile, has become even more important. There maybe is some lesson in how he and not Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland who made the difference. The amount of space he enjoyed could even be seen as symbolic of how United paid too much attention to other players.

The German is undeniably a modern great, though, and he made this his final from the first 13 seconds.

Erling Haaland, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan celebrate after the win (Reuters)
Erling Haaland, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan celebrate after the win (Reuters)

If it’s fair to wonder whether De Gea should have expected that first volley, maybe the rest of us should have expected a quick goal. It was not just in-keeping with a final when so many records were broken, but also City’s form approach of late. Their end to the season, ironically, has been characterised by fast starts.

This was at the extreme end, though. By beating De Gea with such a brilliant volley, Gundogan also beat Louis Saha’s previous record for the fastest goal by 13 seconds.

That was also, coincidentally, about how long it took for the ball to get to him. After Stefan Orgeta had launched the ball forward, Victor Lindelof had headed it back out. It wasn’t the best clearance but was so well set up for Gundogan, who just sent the ball into the top corner.

City were away, and looking like they could do to United what they also did to Arsenal and Real Madrid. Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne were constantly searing at goal in such ominous fashion.

United did manage to withstand the force and rally in a way those other great clubs did not, though, principally through Casemiro. It was his presence that started to block the way – even if he was at times fortunate to escape sanction – and allow United to start making forays forward. There was still an element of hopefulness to it, especially as one optimistic ball over the top put Aaron Wan-Bissaka through.

You could say it was one difference between the sides, as Guardiola’s approach is inevitably so much more developed given how much longer he’s been in charge of his side. It still proved a difference in the moment. Wan-Bissaka’s header bounced off Jack Grealish’s arm and, after a VAR check, a penalty was given. The stand-in Ortega might have had his moment but was instead sent the wrong way by Bruno Fernandes.

Bruno Fernandes scores the penalty for United (Getty)
Bruno Fernandes scores the penalty for United (Getty)

What followed was a spell in the game when City looked more vulnerable, in a way they haven’t for about three months. There was even the feel that it could be one of those matches where it just fell United’s way, given how many decisions and close calls were going their way.

A player like Gundogan doesn’t really deal in the feeling of games, though. Instead, he evidently has the sort of steel to shut it all out.

The only question is why United didn’t shut him down. There were so many dangerous De Bruyne free-kicks when Ten Hag’s side left the German completely unmarked with 10 yards of space around him outside the box. They seemingly hadn’t learnt from those first few seconds.

Gundogan again punished them, again scoring so early in a half – if this time not quite that early.

Another set-piece was sent back out to him and the midfielder put it in the bottom corner. This one wasn’t quite so clean given it went off his shin, but that in its own way only speaks to his clinical nature.

United had no such ruthlessness. They had no such resources, forced to bring in the inadequate Wout Weghorst. He tried, and Alejandro Garnacho injected some real intensity, but it was all insufficient.

All United fans really had in response, other than that penalty, was a flag that just featured the numbers “115” in reference to the number of Premier League charges against City for alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play rules.

That will all form part of greater discussions if City now win the treble. But that’s where we’re at. That’s what football’s oldest competition and a great rivalry became a subplot to, as City now look to the sort of achievement that was unimaginable for most of the sport’s history. It now looks inevitable, and has done for at least two months.

There was no stopping them here. It is difficult to see what can stop them.