Manchester City claimed the first domestic silverware of the season when they defeated Liverpool on penalties in Sunday’s Capital One Cup final.
The first half at Wembley was a tight, nervy affair but it was City who went closest to opening the scoring when Sergio Agüero’s effort was turned onto the post by Reds’ goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
But City did take the lead four minutes into the second half when Fernandinho broke through on the right and his cross-cum-shot squirmed under Mignolet and into the far corner of the net.
The Blues had chances to extend their lead when Raheem Sterling twice missed from close range and should have had a penalty when Agüero was tripped in the box by Alberto Moreno but referee Michael Oliver waved play on.
Then, with just seven minutes of normal time remaining, Liverpool equalised through Philippe Coutinho. A low Daniel Sturridge cross found Adam Lallana, whose effort rebounded off the back post and was turned in by the Brazilian.
Both sides had chances to win the game in extra time when Divock Origi’s header forced a smart save from Willy Caballero and Agüero almost dinked the ball past Mignolet at the other end but the score remained at 1-1 and penalties beckoned.
The shoot-out, which took place at the City end of the stadium, got off to the worst possible start for the Blues when Emre Can chipped his penalty down the middle and Fernandinho hit the post.
However, the much maligned Caballero saved the next three Liverpool spot-kicks, from Lucas Leiva, Coutinho and Lallana, while Jesús Navas and Agüero both scored, meaning the decisive penalty fell to Yaya Touré. The Ivorian, who is no stranger to big Wembley moments, dispatched his penalty coolly to Mignolet’s right and a second Capital One Cup in three seasons went to City.
The win means Manuel Pellegrini won’t be leaving Manchester empty handed at the end of the season and will hopefully inspire his side to go on and challenge for both Champions League glory and the Premier League title in the coming months, beginning with the trip to Anfield on Wednesday night.
I owe someone an apology. Very well played, Willy Caballero. I was wrong. #mcfc
— David Mooney (@DavidMooney) February 28, 2016
After his dismal performance in the 5-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge last weekend, I know I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to see Willy Caballero anywhere near the starting XI for this match.
In almost two seasons at the club, I didn’t feel the 34-year-old had done anything to warrant playing in a cup final and I was absolutely certain he’d let us down on the day.
But I was wrong and Willy did us all proud. The save he made to deny Origi in extra time was an incredibly important one and he made several good catches to relieve the pressure on his team throughout the second half of normal time.
And of course, his heroics in the penalty shoot-out are what his performance in this match will be remembered for the most. Caballero saved three Liverpool penalties in succession, which is no mean feat, and the right-handed one he made to deny Lallana was the pick of the bunch.
The Argentine still isn’t City’s best goalkeeper and Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to not pick Joe Hart for a game of this magnitude could have backfired spectacularly, but you wouldn’t have blamed manager and player if they’d exchanged wry smiles on the train back to Manchester on Sunday evening.
The fans who sung Caballero’s name as they filtered out of Wembley thoroughly enjoyed their humble pie. He may never be regarded as a City legend, but his cult hero status is now as good as assured.
— Emma Davies (@Davo1606) February 29, 2016
A quick word on the defence
This may not be the first time this rather obvious point has been made since his return from injury but City are a much, much better team when Vincent Kompany’s on the pitch.
The Belgian was a colossus at Wembley and his faultless display of defending provided firm foundations upon which the rest of the team could build.
Meanwhile, Nicolás Otamendi finally appears to have settled into his position thanks to Kompany’s guidance and the pace and discipline of Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy in the full-back positions makes for a solid defensive unit all-round.
Defending has undoubtedly been City’s greatest weakness this season but if everyone stays fit and they keep doing what they’ve been doing in the last couple of games, the Capital One Cup might not be the last trophy the skipper gets his hands on this year.
It’s taken him almost three years, but Manuel Pellegrini has finally hit upon a midfield solution
It may only have been two games ago but the days of City being dominated in midfield already feel like a distant memory.
In his three seasons at the club, Pellegrini has experimented with a number of different two and three-man combinations in midfield but none of them ever looked like being a long-term solution to one of City’s biggest problems during his tenure.
Who knew that in Fernandinho he had a player whose versatility could aid an effortless transition from a 4-5-1 formation to a 4-3-3? When City go forward, Fernandinho pulls out onto the right wing (from where he scored his goal) but when possession is lost, he can tuck in and act as a central midfielder. Simple, but very, very effective.
But the success of this system relies on more than just Fernandinho. Fernando put in his second excellent performance in as many matches at Wembley. He’s possibly the least extravagant footballer on City’s books but his abilities to win the ball back and recycle possession have been key ingredients in the last two wins and after almost two underwhelming seasons, he is finally doing the job he was brought to the club to do.
Fernando gone under the radar again.
Not a great footballer.
A great player to have in your team.
— Andy MacNab (@MacNab63) February 29, 2016
And then there’s Yaya Touré. Just as what could well be his final season at the club looked to be fizzling out, the 32-year-old has reinvented himself as a deep-lying playmaker and his team is so much better off as a result. One of Pellegrini’s recent failed experiments revolved around Yaya playing as an attacking midfielder but he’s never been particularly good with his back to goal and has lost the explosiveness that once enabled him to breeze past opponents with ease. The deeper role Yaya has occupied in the last two matches suits him down to the ground at the moment and allows him to dictate play and keep hold of the ball without it leaving the defenders behind him overly exposed.
That he also added another big Wembley moment to his album shall not go unmentioned. It may only have been a penalty, but there was no one else in the stadium I would rather had stepped up to take the decisive spot-kick in the shoot-out.
The return from injury of the likes of Jesús Navas may tempt Pellegrini to deviate from the current midfield system in future matches but he’d be a fool to abandon it completely, especially in the big games we have left. Like the Lamborghini in which Sheikh Mansour is said to have brought the Chilean over from Spain, City’s new convertible formation is a beautifully efficient machine.
What this win could do for the rest of the season
I will never get tired of seeing City win trophies (and yesterday was the fifth time we’ve seen them lift one in six seasons) but Sunday’s glory will be quickly forgotten if they don’t follow it up with a much needed league win at Anfield on Wednesday.
The last time City won the Capital One Cup, in 2013, they went on a run which saw them pip Sunday’s opponents to the Premier League title. With the Blues currently sitting nine points off the league summit (with a game in hand), you sense they’ll need to go on an even better run if they’re to repeat that feat this year.
— Sky Sports News HQ (@SkySportsNewsHQ) February 29, 2016
Manuel Pellegrini now has most of his key players back from injury, a solid, big match system to work with and the feel-good factor of a mid-season trophy win. Following a weekend in which Arsenal lost and Leicester and Tottenham both scraped wins, the team with all the momentum going into the run-in could well be City, but it’s entirely up to them.
A first win for City at Anfield since 2003 will be a big step towards the title, but if they lose, they might as well forget it.
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Written by Dan Burke