FA Cup could kick-start a City dynasty
Winning England's league cup had big implications for Chelsea six years ago. After the Blues, slathered in billionaire Roman Abramovich's cash, beat Liverpool, the floodgates opened. Chelsea subsequently ended a 50-year title drought and bagging trophies became the norm, so much so that any season without silverware is now considered a failure.
You get the feeling that the FA Cup final could have similar implications for Manchester City, which faces Stoke at Wembley on Saturday.
Land the Cup and the sky could be the limit for the Sky Blues, given that City's Middle Eastern owners make Abramovich look like a teenager on an allowance.
"I see the possibility of winning the FA Cup as only the beginning with the plans they have and the players they have and will bring in," Claudio Reyna, a former City midfielder and U.S. captain, said via telephone. "This FA Cup final can have huge, huge significance not only in the short term but in the long term for the club. In my time, the only possibility was a cup run, but that's really changed. It's a new benchmark that they're setting if they win."
While City already achieved its main objective of finishing in the top four in the Premier League and thus qualifying for the lucrative Champions League next season, it would be a psychological blow to the players if they failed to defeat Stoke, much like the way Arsenal suffered after losing to Birmingham City in this season's Carling Cup finale.
City's demanding owners wouldn't like that, which might spell trouble for boss Roberto Mancini. Unlike Chelsea, which always knew it had the right man in the Special One, opinion is still mixed when it comes to the suave Italian.
The relegation battle
The title is done and dusted in the Premier League, but that doesn't mean the excitement is over. Hardly. Six teams are trying to fend off relegation, with bottom three West Ham, Wigan and Blackpool in the most serious trouble.
The biggest game this weekend pits West Ham at unpredictable Wigan on Sunday. Two months ago, it looked like the Hammers were safe. One draw and five losses in its past six matches means West Ham realistically needs to win its final two games to have a chance of staying up. Unlikely.
The good news is that midfielder and leader Scott Parker returns. The bad news is that Avram Grant is still the manager.
Most everyone wants the Seasiders, who play an attractive brand of soccer, to survive. Since they face Manchester United at Old Trafford on the final day, they must get all three points at home against Bolton, too, on Saturday. Even if United has realistically clinched the title and would rest regulars with the Champions League final looming, its second stringers would be expected to prevail over Blackpool.
The lone order of business at the top of the table is to determine who lands the final Europa League spot, designated for the team that finishes fifth. Liverpool's late-season resurgence under Kenny Dalglish has the Reds two points ahead of Tottenham, and they meet at Anfield on Sunday. Not playing in Europe next season would be a bitter blow for Spurs following this season's Champions League adventure. --Ubha
"Now it is time we won a [trophy]," Mancini told reporters this week. "It is important we start to do this as quickly as we can."
Mancini tends to opt for caution in important games, evidenced in the FA Cup semifinals against City's hated rival, Manchester United. Thankfully for Mancini, talisman Carlos Tevez returned this week and could start against Stoke, which would give the Blues more bite up top.
United might get the last laugh, though.
Imagine the joy in the red side of Manchester if United gets the point it needs at Blackburn earlier Saturday, as expected, to wrap up a record 19th league title and City goes on to lose against Stoke. City's fans, starved of a trophy for 35 years, would sink further.
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"We're talking at least two generations that haven't seen the club that they adore lift a trophy," Reyna said.
Overcoming Stoke, making a first appearance in an FA Cup final in its 148-year history, won't be easy, as Reyna knows. Stoke is difficult to break down and has beaten Arsenal and Liverpool already this campaign. The Potters were unfortunate to lose to United at home, and drew with City and Chelsea at home, too. In short, Stoke presents a more sizable threat to City than Birmingham did to Arsenal.
Sure, Stoke relies on long throws from Rory Delap and other set pieces to create most chances, and tackles hard -- all lessening the good versus evil scenario for some neutrals -- but Tony Pulis' team isn't devoid of more traditional skills. The manager is hoping defender Robert Huth, important in the air at both ends of the pitch, and winger Matthew Etherington, Stoke's most creative player, will pass late fitness tests. Pulis also knows that shutting down the partnership of Yaya Toure and David Silva will be key to Stoke's chances. Toure has become much more than a defensive midfielder, his role at Barcelona, scoring goals and making breathtaking runs. Silva is pure class, lifting his game in the second half of the season.
Winning on Saturday would help diminish Pulis' bad memories of facing City at Wembley in 1999. Guiding Gillingham in the League One playoff final, City scored in the 89th minute and stoppage time to reverse a 2-0 deficit, eventually earning promotion on penalties.
"But it [the loss] made me a stronger person," Pulis, in his second spell as Stoke manager, told reporters. "You take things out of defeat as well as victory."
And it's not all bad memories for Pulis. After all, his side crushed Bolton 5-0 in the FA Cup semifinals.
The Potters won't be able to run roughshod over City. But whichever team wins, it'll indeed end decades of heartache: Stoke's only major trophy is the league cup in 1972, and Manchester City last brought home the FA Cup in 1969.
But beyond the historical significance of Saturday's match, the FA Cup final could signal the start of something very special for Manchester City.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @r_ubha.
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