Thursday 17 October 2019

Paul Hayward: 'Romance bludgeoned by irrepressible brilliance of Pep's treble winners'

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola with the FA Cup after last Saturday's final. Photo: Glyn Kirk. Photo: GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola with the FA Cup after last Saturday's final. Photo: Glyn Kirk. Photo: GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

One of Elton John's best songs is I've Seen That Movie Too. We all have. The one where a cup final starts as a romantic clash between provincial England and a big city powerhouse and the hopefuls end up crushed.

By the end you wanted to look away - though Watford's fans, to their credit, stuck with it, waving red and yellow flags and roaring their team to their doom. As 6-0 losers, Watford now know how Rotherham (7-0) and Burton Albion (9-0) felt after bouncing off City in cup games in January.

You can laud Manchester City's history-making rampage while also wondering how it will feel for these Watford players to have to live with this memory. Losing an FA Cup final 6-0 is not easily rationalised as a forgettable brush with a juggernaut. The story of this season (domestically at least) has been the overwhelming force of City's squad, with its boundless ways of inflicting hurt.

Nobody at City was presumptuous about the outcome but Pep Guardiola, their manager, was insufficiently awed to depart from his favoured match-day outfit of grey woollen round neck over white T-shirt.

Guardiola's wardrobe choices add to his anti-establishment stance. But City are the establishment now and it falls to the other rich Premier League clubs to stop their rule becoming oppressive. That task was way beyond Watford, themselves a significant investment "project" but not on the scale of Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth.

The quadruple dream died in a Champions League quarter-final of fag packet margins but all three English trophies are at City for their owner, Sheikh Mansour, to view via his iPhone. Optimists will say they were pushed to a penalty shoot-out in the League Cup final and won the Premier League from Liverpool by only a point. But conquest No 3 arrived with City having fun on the counter-attack and Watford probing spiritedly but also ponderously in Vincent Kompany's domain. All across England, clubs will be searching for a formula to stop next season being a repeat of this.

On Wembley Way beforehand, Watford's presence was a tonic. The Hornets swarmed towards the honey of a first FA Cup final appearance since 1984.

Their sunflower shirts aroused the hope that mid-table finishers could have a shock in store for the Premier League champions, who were chasing the first domestic treble in the 58 years a clean sweep has been possible. Most of us still hanker after an age when the world's oldest knockout competition offered the underdog a chance in the finale. This one, however, was an affirmation of what we already know. It was City's end-of-season victory lap.

With Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane all starting on the bench, City were 3-0 up in an hour, with De Bruyne knocking in the third.

Then Gabriel Jesus added a fourth. Guardiola's favoured playing style - elegant coercion - was blowing Watford away. A smattering of their fans could take no more and trudged away. Most, though, stuck to their role as loyal and defiant supporters of a club on the up but one nowhere near City's power and influence.

Watford adopted a drift defence, avoiding the temptation to disrupt City's familiar midfield ball-rotation by frantic pressing. Instead, in a 4-5-1 formation, Javi Gracia's team watched City sweep the ball wide and dealt comfortably with balls into the penalty box. But in sport a good plan can mutate without warning into a bad idea. After 25 minutes, when Abdoulaye Doucoure lost the ball on the edge of the Watford box, Sterling nodded it forward for David Silva to score. A deluge followed.

In their own efforts to keep the game alive, Watford were forced to peer down 2019's well of astonishing comebacks in the hope that there might be one more down there. Not this time. The more Watford chased the game, the more City used their speed and nimbleness to inflict real damage on them.

Guardiola's team have gears and options. They used the disappointment of their Champions League exit to startling effect, redoubling their quest to own all the pots in England. Their unity and resolve are commendable, wherever you stand on the monopolisation of domestic trophies. Their football has been irresistible, their spirit fierce.

"One Graham Taylor," the Watford fans sang, falling back on old glories. For neutrals, there was that uncomfortable sense of a romantic possibility being ripped apart by a relentless phenomenon: a winning machine, with a job to do and a new benchmark to set. Some will feel they know what Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling can do to teams and had no need to see it again in a game that is meant to offer more than a confirmation of hierarchies.

The captivated audience the Football Association seeks for this showpiece was probably not noticeably entertained, except as witnesses to a unique achievement. They have seen this movie, too. The ending may be predictable but the kind of football played along the way is the only possible justification for all the spending and all the cruel imbalances.

If it has to be warped, it might as well be beautiful.

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