City favourites for the FA Cup, but underestimate Stoke at your peril

by Charlie Coffey

Friday, May 13th, 2011
 

For Sheikh Mansour, the oil rich owner of Manchester City, a victory over Stoke in the FA Cup final tomorrow would represent the completion of the first stage of his long-term plan, having only owned the club for less than three years. City fans already have Champions League football to look forward to next season, an astounding feat in itself given the fact that they were lost in mid-table obscurity just a few seasons ago.

Much has been made, especially by Manchester United fans, of City’s 35-year wait for a trophy  since they won their last piece of silverware: the league cup in 1976. Because of the press interest in the money being pumped into the club, it is easy to forget that Manchester City have not yet won the cup. There is another team playing tomorrow that want it just as much as their opponents.

Stoke City have only ever won one piece of silverware in the history of the club, and that was the league cup 39 years ago. This will be their first ever FA Cup final, and a determined physical side with the motivation of Tony Pulis; one that beat Arsenal by a convincing 3-1 score-line last weekend, will be no pushovers, literally.

Both sides are big physically and are desperate to win. The implications of this are that it will be a tough, nervy encounter. In this respect City have the edge because of the big game experience of many of their players. Every single one of City’s probable match day squad is a full international apart from their substitute goalkeeper. Nigel de Jong and Patrick Vieira have played in World Cup finals, Vieira and David Silva in European Championship finals, and Carlos Tevez (who is expected to play after recovering just in time from a hamstring injury) in a Champions League final.

In contrast Stoke is a team made up of decent players and some journeymen, but as Arsenal and many other decent sides have found out, they are much more than the sum of their parts. In Kenwyne Jones they have a striker who has found form at the ideal time and can be handful for any defender on his day. The battle between him and probably Vincent Kompany, club captain and a member of the Premier League team of the season, will be crucial.

City have not one but two players who have put in their best performances in the shirt in recent weeks in Silva and Yaya Toure. Silva has been weaving the magic he was bought to provide having seemingly adjusted to the physicality of English football. Yaya Toure represents a strong driving force from attacking midfield who can also win the ball back and defend when required, making a formidable midfield three with de Jong and Gareth Barry when opponents are in possession.

Stoke will unashamedly look at set pieces as their best chance of victory. Although they were famously referred to by Arsene Wenger as a rugby team, Pulis has done a remarkable job in reaching this final and their current 8th place in the league on a shoestring budget. He cannot compete with teams such as City and Arsenal in the transfer market and his players cannot match theirs for technique and skill, so he does the best with what he has. He uses man management to get the best out of players who may have been rejected by the bigger clubs – his centre-back partnership of Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross are former Chelsea and Manchester United players respectively, and works meticulously on set-pieces.

In the league this season 44.2% of all Stoke’s goals have come from set-pieces. Pulis’ Stoke also have a kind of set piece that no other side in the league uses or can use – the Rory Delap long throw. The average height of his players has to be the biggest in the division, and they use this to their advantage wherever possible. In order to service these players Pulis has two old-fashioned wingers with excellent delivery: Matthew Etherington (ex-Spurs) on the left and Jermaine Pennant (ex-Arsenal) on the right. Rather than faff around with inverted wingers as his does his opposite number tomorrow: Roberto Mancini, he simply asks them to get to the by-line and deliver. Unfortunately for Stoke, Etherington will probably miss tomorrow’s game because of a hamstring injury, and with first choice left-back Danny Higginbotham (ex-Man United) out it means that their entire first-choice left flank is out. Strikers Ricardo Fuller and Mamady Sidebe are also out injured.

City’s wide men in what will almost certainly be a 4-3-3 will be asked to do a slightly more sophisticated job. The effectively ambidextrous Silva has almost a free role between the lines of midfield and attack, drifting in from a starting berth on the left, and could pop up anywhere making him difficult to mark. Adam Johnson will look to cut inside from the right flank onto his stronger left foot and shoot whenever he has room to do so. His role can be compared to that of Arjen Robben at Bayern Munich, although Johnson will be the first to admit that he is not quite at Robben’s level yet. City have only defender Jerome Boateng and ‘keeper Shay Given missing through injury.

Although City are clear favourites, this game is by no means over before it has begun. The old clichés about the unpredictability of cup finals apply of course, but more importantly Stoke have earned their place in the hardest-fought domestic trophy in Europe, just ask Bolton who were beaten 4-0 by them in the semi-final. With City bound to reach more cup finals if Sheikh Mansour continues to spend, this game may mean even more to Stoke than it does to City. Only one team will end their long period of hurt without silverware, but remember that there are two sides playing tomorrow and that it is a little early to tie the sky blue ribbons onto Old Big Ears just yet.

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  • John Potter

    I think you’ll find that Stoke City beat Bolton 5-0 in their semi-final not 4-0 as you state – poor research – but I suppose you didn’t bother to watch that game. Bit disrespectful to refer to Manchester City as “City” in an article, when they are playing Stoke CITY – most of the media do it – but then most of the media refer to Manchester United as United when they are playing Newcastle United, which is equally disrespectful. I can guess which of the two City’s you are supporting tomorrow.

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