For a manager accused of over-thinking big games, Pep Guardiola almost always gets it right when a trophy is in sight – but his opponent in Saturday’s FA Cup final, Erik ten Hag is no slouch either.
Late on a balmy April evening in 2011, Angel di Maria scampered down the left flank towards the corner flag of Valencia’s Mestalla stadium and hung a cross up towards the far post. As would become a hallmark of the later years of his career, Cristiano Ronaldo leapt highest and crashed a header past the goalkeeper and into the net.
Ronaldo’s extra-time goal would prove the only one of a scrappy Copa del Rey final but was enough to win the trophy for Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. For Pep Guardiola, a first loss to his club’s most bitter rivals as Barcelona coach also represented his first taste of defeat in a cup final since beginning a career in management.
Ten years, one month and nine days later, Mason Mount looked up from just inside Chelsea’s half of the Estadio do Dragao in Porto and released a pass that split Manchester City’s defence. It found the run of Kai Havertz, whose attempt to round goalkeeper Ederson ricocheted kindly into his path and left him a tap into an open goal.
Not helped by the loss of Kevin De Bruyne to injury, Guardiola’s City failed to summon a second-half comeback. Despite dominating possession, they were out-shot by a Chelsea side reinforced by the mid-season appointment of Thomas Tuchel, who took the Champions League trophy back to west London for the second time in under a decade.
In the intervening seasons, Guardiola had taken his seat in the dugout for nine finals of major competitions as manager of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and then City. He won them all, helping to cement his reputation as the football coach of his generation. For someone accused of over-thinking big games, he almost always nails the finals.
This weekend he will lead City in another one, his first since that defeat to Chelsea in Portugal two years ago and his sixth since arriving at the Etihad Stadium in 2016. Their opponents on Saturday at Wembley will be Manchester United in what is set to be the first time that the neighbours have met in an FA Cup final.
United manager Erik ten Hag is 11 months older than Guardiola but began his coaching career later and has fewer cup finals on his CV, but his record of three wins from five is not to be sniffed at. Like the Catalan, his two defeats have come by a single goal, and in the first, seven years ago, his Utrecht team were not expected to beat Feyenoord.
Since then Ten Hag has won two Dutch cup finals as part of domestic doubles with Ajax, losing the third to PSV Eindhoven last year in his last season at the club. In his first campaign at United he has already secured the Carabao Cup; by beating City on Saturday he can achieve the first domestic cup double in the club’s history.
Fresh from clinching their fifth Premier League title in six years, City are heavy odds-on favourites to win the FA Cup. Yet Guardiola hasn’t had it all his own way against United, winning just half and losing seven of 18 Manchester derbies. City smashed six in October but at Old Trafford three months later they lost to two late goals.
For both sides, there is more at stake in this final than a trophy. City and Guardiola cannot afford to stumble as they look to become the first English club to do the continental treble since United in 1999. And arguably more precious to Ten Hag’s team than a cup double would be preventing their neighbours from equalling the red half of Manchester’s greatest feat.