Same time, same place, different year: The Man City Cup final featuring, you guessed it, Manchester City is set to take place at the home of English football on Sunday.
It’s the least coveted of all the available trophies, yet it’s psychological benefits are impossible to ignore. The Citizens have won the trophy four times since 2014 and victory in the competition has preceded a Premier League title on three of those occasions. One brings two; the insatiable appetite for silverware rises sharply in between the Wembley walls and lays the foundations for City’s characteristically relentless end of season push.
There is a feeling of inevitability surrounding the result. Death, taxes and Man City winning the Carabao Cup.
While football’s charm to a large degree derives from its unpredictability and its facilitation of David’s triumph over Goliath, the factors really are stacked against Aston Villa ahead of the clash. Since the start of December they have won just three of 14 league matches and they have lost their last three in a row. A relentless City side trounced them 6-1 at Villa Park shortly following the turn of the year, and Pep Guardiola’s side arrive in London on the back of a 2-1 Champions League win at the Bernabeu.
The ray of hope for the Villains, though, is Jack Grealish, a player who is admired on both sides of Manchester, per Daily Telegraph.
Beyond Villa’s playmaker-in-chief the fact that Dean Smith’s prevailed on the same ground to reach the Premier League last season in a game of infinitely higher stakes will give the club hope of pulling off a minor miracle.
The game is set to take place amid a backdrop of financial and, arguably, moral corruption which hangs over the heads of the overwhelming favourites.
And while some may naturally view this as an unofficial audition for Grealish to earn himself a move to the Etihad Stadium, a footballing dream factory where professional and financial aspirations have been realised for the best part of ten years, City’s two-year ban from Europe’s elite cup competition could yet represent a transfer market kryptonite with the potential to derail their attempts to bring the budding England international into the club.
David Silva’s confirmed end of season departure will open up a vacancy to be filled and Grealish is undisputedly a worthy candidate even if, stylistically and statistically speaking, they are far from carbon copies of one another.
Statistically Grealish is a pulsating machine of noteworthy contributions. Rarely does a player consistently offer so much and impress to the point of near universal admiration, but that’s exactly what he has achieved on his return to England’s top tier this season.
His ability to bamboozle defenders and drive his team forward is reflected by the fact he is the most fouled player in Europe this season, per Whoscored. On average he draws 4.9 fouls per game, which is 0.8 more than Neymar while his return of 2.8 key passes also trumps the Brazilian’s return of 2.6.
Grealish is no joke and he is certainly much more than a prodigy who happens to have hit a purple patch.
It would not be a stretch to say that triggering his £60m release clause is a no-brainer for Guardiola this summer, and his performance at Wembley could well cement his credentials as a future lynchpin in the Spaniard’s immensely talented midfield.
But City’s ability to dominate the market and cherry-pick a squad consisting of pretty much whoever the hell they want could soon become a distinguishing feature of a tainted past, a mere memory of the Utopian landscape they once prowled.
An outstanding display from Grealish in the EFL Cup final may not be enough to inspire a shocking result yet it may be enough to convince the soon-to-be dethroned Premier League champions that a summer bid should be on their agenda.
For the first time in Guardiola’s reign, though, there is the added complication of City’s Champions League ban which leaves the club’s transfer market prowess in jeopardy.
It will be a bitter pill to swallow for the club if a potential future star snubs their advances in favour of a club with Champions League football on offer, and that daunting feeling of what could have been may begin to manifest when Grealish begins to twist, turn and tantalise in Villa’s midfield at Wembley.
The tide is unlikely to turn on the pitch as City aim to fulfil their annual EFL Cup obligation. Away from the pitch, however, the future is less clear cut.