If Manchester City achieve the Quadruple this season, their FA Cup semifinal victory against Brighton will go down as the day that they caught their breath before the final charge to the summit.
Twenty years ago, when Manchester United overcame Arsenal in an FA Cup semifinal en route to the Treble, it turned out to be a clash of the ages — a two-game epic, won by Ryan Giggs’ stunning solo goal, which propelled Sir Alex Ferguson’s team to what at the time looked to be an unmatchable achievement.
City are still on course to go one better this season, however, after Saturday’s 1-0 win against Brighton secured their place in next month’s FA Cup final, against either Watford or Wolves. That said, the memory of this Wembley win may fade after a week rather than still be remembered in 20 years’ time.
It was as close to a non-event as you could imagine once Gabriel Jesus headed City into the lead from Kevin De Bruyne’s fourth minute cross. Brighton, their energies sapped by a battle for survival in the Premier League, barely looked capable of fighting back and hauling themselves back into the game, and City knew it. It was like watching a world-class heavyweight toy with a challenger way out of their depth, but at the same time, lacking the inclination to ruthlessly put them out of their misery.
Once ahead, City were always going to win the game, and despite Pep Guardiola barking orders from the touchline as though his job depended on it, the players on the pitch knew that they could coast to victory and conserve their legs and minds for the bigger battles ahead. The Quadruple is still on, even if Guardiola remains sceptical — publicly at least — about his team’s chances of actually pulling it off.
“My opinion is that nobody has done it [The Quadruple] so why can we do it?” Guardiola said at Wembley. “It is almost impossible to achieve everything. That is the truth.”
Whether an FA Cup semifinal should ever be won so easily is another matter. But that is the reality of City’s victory, regardless of the narrow 1-0 scoreline, and they will not mind that they won it without being overly extended.
Since winning the Carabao Cup at Wembley in a penalty shootout over Chelsea on Feb. 24, City have played eight and won eight. Aside from the FA Cup quarterfinal win against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium last month, when they fought back from 2-0 down to win 3-2, City have won every game without really being stretched.
It was far from Man City’s prettiest game under Pep Guardiola, but City beat Brighton and now have secured a second cup final appearance. EPA/NEIL HALL EDITORIAL USE ONLY
They have scored 20 goals during that run, conceding just 3, and while Premier League title rivals Liverpool have been pushed to the limit during the same period, needing a number of late goals to win games, City have serenely ploughed on, being neither spectacular nor below par.
The question now is whether they can continue to play within themselves and win everything still to be won, or if the time has come for them to step it up and meet the challenge that lies ahead. If it proves to be the latter, can they actually do that having been playing in second gear for the past two months?
Tuesday’s Champions League quarterfinal clash first-leg trip to Tottenham will give us an answer to that question.
Spurs are a real threat to City’s quest for the Quadruple, even though Mauricio Pochettino’s team will go into the tie as big underdogs.
– Man City Player Ratings: Jesus, De Bruyne 8/10 as City beat Brighton
Any team with players the calibre of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, etc. commands respect, and City ought to be wary of facing Spurs at their new stadium, where they will be up against a noisy home crowd as well as formidable opponents on the pitch.
Spurs, having had a weekend off, will also be fresh, so City’s comfortable win against Brighton ensures they will not return to European action with battered minds and bodies. But can they switch on the required intensity like a light switch on Tuesday after two months of treading water?
Liverpool have become conditioned to playing at full tilt, and they might suffer a reaction to that at some point soon, but City’s problem is the opposite in that they will need to be better than they have been recently in order to win the games looming on the horizon.
Within the next three weeks, they must play Spurs three times — twice in the Champions League and once in the league — and also visit Old Trafford to play United. There is also the small matter of a trip to Crystal Palace next Sunday and City will remember their home defeat against Roy Hodgson’s team in December and the 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park last season.
Five games in 18 days lie ahead in all and they are all tough, challenging fixtures — much more so than those they have come through over the past two months. So perhaps City are now entering the most decisive period of their campaign.
If they are to achieve the Quadruple, it will be made or broken over the next five games, so maybe they needed this stress-free win against Brighton because it really is going to get tough from this point on.