Match of the Season
City 1-0 United
FA Cup semi-final, Wembley (16.04.11)
It had been 30 long years since City had competed in the FA Cup final.
Standing in the Blues’ way were our greatest rivals and, at the time, an all-powerful Manchester United side who had dominated domestic football for more than 20 years.
Roberto Mancini’s first season in charge at the Etihad was proving to be an impressive one, with City challenging for a first Champions League qualification and the dangling carrot of a first trophy for 35 years in the FA Cup.
United were on their way to yet another title and on course for only the second ever Treble of Premier League, Champions League, and FA Cup, having achieved the feat for the first time in 1999.
While stopping United was in the minds of City fans, it certainly wasn’t at the forefront – reaching the final where Stoke City or Bolton Wanderers awaited the winners was all that mattered, as well as having the derby day bragging rights.
Everyone at Manchester City understood that part of the rebuilding project that our new ownership had envisaged was winning trophies.
It had been so long since the 1976 League Cup triumph over Newcastle United that a generation of City fans had never seen the club win anything.
Winning the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United would offer that very possibility of long-awaited glory, with Tony Pulis’ Stoke and Owen Coyle’s Bolton still locked in a fight to avoid relegation.
City’s path to the semi-final had seen Leicester dispatched - after a replay - in the third round and new signing Edin Dzeko had come to the rescue in the fourth round where the Blues had been 10 minutes from going out to the then struggling League One side.
That 1-1 draw at Meadow Lane was set right with a 5-0 victory over the Magpies at the Etihad and a place in the last 16.
The Blues pulled Aston Villa out of the hat in the fifth round – Mancini’s side had beaten Villa 4-0 at the Etihad in December but lost the return game 1-0 at Villa Park.
Goals from Yaya Toure, Mario Balotelli and David Silva saw Villa comfortably beaten 3-0 at the Etihad in an unusual midweek tie and when Championship side Reading were pitted against City in the quarter-finals, Blues’ fans started to wonder.
Were the stars finally aligning?
If they were, surely avoiding Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final draw would provide further belief that City could finally end the trophy drought.
Except we did pull United out of the hat.
Supporters argued long and hard over the question of whether it was better to face the Reds in the semi or the final?
United would be favourites, but if City could see off Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, then it would be the Blues who started the FA Cup final as favourites to beat Stoke or Bolton.
The Manchester derby was the FA Cup final neutrals wanted – it had never happened before and, with respect to the other FA Cup semi-finalists, it had a global appeal that few matches in England could command.
While the excitement in the week leading up to the Wembley derby date was reaching fever pitch, both sides had a game to play in the days leading up to the weekend.
United progressed to the Champions League semi-final after beating Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford and completed a 3-1 aggregate victory to book a semi-final spot with Schalke.
There was still work to do in the title race, where they were seven points clear of Arsenal but having played one game more.
City’s preparation couldn’t have been much worse, with a demoralising 3-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield leaving the Blues just three points ahead of Spurs as the battle for Champions League qualification intensified.
That sobering loss undoubtedly weighed heavy on Mancini’s mind and begged the question whether his team had the mentality to beat a United side who were used to getting the job done in big games?
One ace Mancini had up his sleeve was Patrick Vieira.
The French World Cup winner was vastly experienced in games like this and while he wouldn’t be named in the starting XI, he was on the bench and his influence in the dressing room – as Joleon Lescott would later claim – was “immeasurable”.
The sold out signs had been posted long before the two teams walked out onto the hallowed turf, one end a sea of sky blue scarves, shirts and flags, the other, a mixture of dark clothing and the odd patch of red.
United fans didn’t think this was a big deal and they certainly weren’t going to allow City fans to believe it was anything special for them.
They were serial winners, and this was, after all, just another semi-final for them.
As City’s team was read out, the noise was deafening from the West End of Wembley – and as the United team was read out, the Blues’ supporters turned their backs and performed perhaps the best Poznan yet.
It was a magnificent spectacle, filled with energy and excitement, and it was something the City players would tap into.
Both sides were without their talisman for the game, with Carlos Tevez injured for City and Wayne Rooney suspended for United.
Mario Balotelli and Dimitar Berbatov were the replacements.
Predictably, United enjoyed the early dominance and Berbatov should have scored when he was put clear on goal but denied by a fine Joe Hart save.
Moments later, Nani’s low cross found Berbatov at the far post but as he slid to surely put the ball in the net he somehow managed to sky the ball over the crossbar when it looked easier to score.
It was a major let-off for Mancini’s men.
The longer the half wore on, however, the greater City’s belief became and by the break, the 0-0 scoreline was a fair reflection of the first 45 minutes.
There had been half-chances, but not much more.
But in the City dressing room, accusations flew around between team-mates who believed it hadn’t been good enough.
Nigel de Jong recalled: "I won't give you the details but, obviously, everybody wanted to win. And sometimes you come face to face with each other. It happened in the dressing room, and it is just a small thing.
“But it keeps the fire alive. Everyone wants to win the main prizes and we showed a great spirit in the second half. The belief has always been there. Obviously we've had our ups and downs and that's normal for a team that wants to progress.
“But in the second half we showed that belief. We came out of the dressing room and dominated United."
It was true. There was more fire and brimstone in City’s attitude and application and it didn’t take long for the renewed focus to pay off.
The second-half was just seven minutes old when one half of Wembley erupted.
Rio Ferdinand’s relaxed jog to retrieve a loose ball saw him then find Edwin van der Sar whose clearance was poor and was cut out by David Silva.
The Spaniard’s touch was heavy, and John O’Shea and he immediately played a short pass to his left for Michael Carrick – Carrick’s attempted ball across the D of the box was intercepted by Yaya Toure who powered past Carrick and Nemanja Vidic before hitting a low shot through the legs of van der Sar to put City 1-0 up.
The celebrations were loud and wild.
The Blues went close to doubling the lead when Lescott headed just wide from a left wing cross and on 65 minutes, United came within a whisker of levelling as Nani’s free-kick glanced the head of Mario Balotelli and Hart had to twist in mid-air to tip the ball onto the crossbar.
But the game swing even further in City’s favour on 72 minutes when Paul Scholes’ poor high challenge raked down Pablo Zabaleta’s thigh and referee Mike Dean showed the United playmaker the red card.
Surely the Blues could hold out in the time that remained?
Rob Draper, writing in the Daily Mail, succinctly summed up the dread that was embedded in City fans’ DNA whenever we faced United and the thought of what might happen on ‘Fergie Time’, as any additional minutes United played during his reign were dubbed.
He wrote: “It was Chris Foy who inflicted the cruellest blow. When the fourth official lifted his board to indicate five minutes of added time, the light-blue half of Wembley howled in horror.
“How many times have Manchester City been here before, on the verge of something rather special against their illustrious neighbours, only to be denied at the last?
“To City fans, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team are the equivalent of Count Dracula, not dead until they are buried six feet under with a stake through their heart. Even then, you’re never wholly sure.”
There were half-chances in the time that remained, and it was true, there wasn’t a City fan inside Wembley who didn’t believe the Reds wouldn’t find a leveller from somewhere, but in the sixth minute of those agonising extra passages of play, the referee blew for full-time, the seemingly impossible had become a reality.
Mancini’s side had won 1-0.
The City fans erupted again – we were in the FA Cup final for the first time since 1981 and the opportunity to end a 42-year wait to win the world’s most famous knockout trophy felt tangible.
"I am very happy for our supporters, because they deserve this," said Mancini after full-time.
"It is important to start winning trophies, and I stand by my claim that if we win the FA Cup this year we can try for the title next season.
“This could be a turning point for us, but it is important to remember there is another game to win. I think we can go on from this to win the FA Cup and secure a top-four finish."
Prophetic words from our Italian boss who was steadily attaining something close to hero worship from the success-starved Blues.
De Jong added: “We put a statement out there for the other teams but for the club as well. It was a big step forwards for us. Everyone has been talking about City spending all this money and seeking out prizes, and this meant we were only one game away from winning our first silverware. The guys were hungry, but you've got to start somewhere in feeding that hunger. We did that against United.
“History is a big part of this Club, but we are trying to change that history.”
Matchwinner Yaya Toure dedicated his goal to his brother, who was serving a ban for using diet pills that were banned by football’s governing bodies.
“It's been very hard for Kolo, and has been for me and all our family," said Yaya.
“I came to Manchester City to play with him and win something. I've won trophies with other clubs, but I've always wanted to win something playing alongside him. He's still in some trouble, but he is a strong guy. His mentality is strong. I am very sad for him, but this if for him, the fans and the club."
What nobody quite understood was this was the beginning of the most glorious era in Manchester City’s long, proud history…