Manchester City and Sunderland will do battle for the first piece of silverware in the English football calendar this afternoon in the League Cup Final. A sold-out Wembley stadium will provide the backdrop for what promises to be an intriguing clash between two teams at different ends of the Premier League table.
On paper, Manchester City are the obvious favourites but so often under Gus Poyet Sunderland have raised their game against more illustrious opponents. The Black Cats have struggled in the Premier League this season, but the cup competitions have been an entirely different story. They’ll have no fear and feel no pressure ahead of this final, especially after beating Chelsea and Manchester United on their way to Wembley.
Ahead of this one, let’s take a look at which players are set to star on the big stage and take an informed guess at who will come out on top in the season’s first major final.
Before we do examine the potential match winners, here are your starting line-ups for the League Cup final.
TEAM TO FACE SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Zabaleta, Kompany (C), Demichelis, Kolarov, Nasri, Toure, Fernandinho, Silva, Aguero, Dzeko. #mcfc— Manchester City FC (@MCFC) March 2, 2014
#SAFC Mannone, Bardsley, Alonso, O'Shea (c), Brown, Cattermole, Colback, Ki, Larsson, Johnson, Borini— Sunderland AFC (@SAFCofficial) March 2, 2014
The mercurial Spaniard has played himself into sensational form in recent weeks and he’ll be the key man for City when it comes to breaking down this cohesive Sunderland outfit.
Silva, dubbed “Merlin” by the Manchester City faithful, will start from the left-hand-side but be given freedom to drift off the line and into central positions. He is so adept at finding pockets of space, picking the ball up on the half-turn and playing incisive passes, which is so difficult for the opposition to stop.
He will look to pick the ball up either side of Lee Cattermole at the base of the Sunderland midfield and pick out the runs of forwards Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko, as well as the forays of Aleksandar Kolarov from left-back.
If Silva sees plenty of the ball in these sorts of areas it’s going to be a long day for Sunderland. Lee Cattermole will have to be at his absolute best to stem the passes into the Spaniard, otherwise he’ll wreak havoc when the game becomes stretched.
Returning from injury to take his place in the starting XI, the Argentinian has been sorely missed for Manchester City as of late.
Whenever he has been on the field this campaign, Aguero has been sensational. His movement, touch and composure in front of goal have made him one of the most feared strikers on the continent and a return to goalscoring form in the final will be most welcome for Manchester City supporters.
Aguero will partner Dzeko in attack and they have been sensational as a duo this campaign. They complement each other superbly and look set to give the Sunderland central defensive pairing a real torrid afternoon.
The hero in the semi-final was Italian stopper Vito Mannone, and you suspect that he'll have to be at his absolute peak if Sunderland are to shut out this City attack.
After his move from Arsenal in the summer, Mannone has been outstanding for Sunderland. He's nailed down a place in the first XI and has rewarded his manager with some sensational displays.
He made some key saves in both legs of the semi-final against Manchester United before playing a crucial role in the penalty shootout victory. You suspect that City will create a host of chances in this final and he'll be called upon plenty of times throughout the 90 minutes.
If he can have another stormer of a game, Sunderland might just be able to nick this one.
Who will lift the trophy?
The way Sunderland will line up means this game will be tight from the outset. For Poyet it’s imperative his side are switched on from the off and don’t concede an early goal. That would be an absolute disaster for the Black Cats given their defensive set-up.
Cup finals are naturally cagey affairs and I can see City initially struggling to break down this cohesive Sunderland unit. But eventually, as the game wears on and tired legs become a factor, Silva will begin to find more space and more time.
That’s when the game will eventually be won for City. They’ll score a couple of goals late on to secure the first trophy of the domestic campaign and run out 2-0 winners.