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Manchester United’s only hope is FA Cup magic in the showdown between the most one-sided rivals in Wembley history

After a season in which Manchester United’s tactical system has been the subject of constant debate, Erik ten Hag does not have the luxury of choosing before the final game, which could well be his last game. The Dutch manager has to prepare for underdog football in Saturday’s FA Cup final against Manchester City. This is not for ideology. Almost everyone has to make concessions when facing Pep Guardiola, but there is more here.

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty about the game is how underdog United are. It is difficult to imagine a final between two big clubs in which such an extreme abyss was felt. The gap is such that the dynamic of this game is much more similar to the 2014 Arsenal-Hull City final than even last year’s meeting between the same two Manchester clubs.

It’s a feeling only accentuated by the fact that they both immediately returned to the final, with the same successive pairing happening for the second time in history, but the gap has widened since then. City have only strengthened their dominance in English football, as they also aim for the first double-double in the country’s history. That was a feat not even Sir Alex Ferguson achieved. The closest he came was in doubles in 1994 and 1996, although with two runner-up finishes in between. Guardiola can go much further by adding the FA Cup to this season’s Premier League, in addition to last season’s treble.

It is unprecedented dominance that has raised bigger questions for English football.

In contrast, Ten Hag barely manages to retain his position. A common feeling is that the only reason nothing has happened yet is because, firstly, United still have this cup final and, secondly, the manager market has been quite tight. The latter is something that changed drastically this week, with the availability of both Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel. The United hierarchy still have a preference for Gareth Southgate and there is now strong interest in Kieran McKenna, but those names will spark fresh debate.

We’re almost past the point where winning the FA Cup (admittedly, that’s two trophies in two seasons) would change that discussion. Ten Hag’s Premier League and Champions League campaigns were too chaotic. On the contrary, there is almost the feeling that this final could make things worse.

There is some in-game discussion about how City could easily subject their historic rivals to the same scale of defeat they tortured Watford with in 2019. That was a 6-0, and that’s the kind of gap we’re talking about . If it sounds crazy, just look at the odds for this match. It’s truly remarkable that United finished 5-1. This is extraordinary for a derby in a final between two clubs like this.

Casemiro and Varane must stop Haaland in his last game for United
Casemiro and Varane must stop Haaland in his last game for United (fake images)

The painful truth for United is that, if City are in the mood, they could really subject Ten Hag’s team to utter humiliation. We may not have seen the nadir yet.

It’s that easy. The gap between the teams is too big. Even if the game proceeds relatively normally, with both teams playing at their overall level, it would simply be a comfortable victory for the Abu Dhabi project.

That’s almost as bad as the humiliation itself, in the sense that it would be considered so routine. This is what INEOS has been struggling with as it evaluates every aspect of United at the moment. While the new hierarchy is much more direct with those inside the club, the coded language from figures like Sir Dave Brailsford towards those outside Old Trafford is that there are “opportunities”. They have seen many areas where there is “considerable room for improvement.”

Perhaps the biggest is the space in front of the defence, as United have allowed plenty of shots to opponents this season. That’s why results like that 4-0 at Crystal Palace eventually became inevitable. What could Kevin De Bruyne or Phil Foden do there?

Foden finished the season in great shape
Foden finished the season in great shape (fake images)

And yet this is also where there is a strange kind of hope for United.

Although the big clubs dominate the modern FA Cup, its knockout nature means it is more subject to sudden changes in fortune… to “magic”, even if that is in the sense of unlikely things happening.

United’s run to the final has already had plenty of that. The quarter-final against Liverpool had been prepared in the same way as this match, as if Jurgen Klopp’s team were going to defeat them. There’s even a fair argument that Liverpool did exactly that in the overall game, considering how they left United open. However, as can happen in specific qualifying rounds, this was not reflected on the field. Liverpool missed too many opportunities. United took theirs, and the dramatic nature of Antony’s late equalizer and Amad Diallo’s extra-time winner in stoppage time only fostered an emotional boost to this run. It was the kind of game people used to cite as the reason there are names in the cup, before City won most of them.

However, there is still a certain sense of destiny. Admittedly, that came with the sense of farce of that semi-final against Coventry City, albeit with the almost symbolic appearance of a United FA Cup hero in Mark Robins. It was he who saved Sir Alex Ferguson’s run to the trophy in 1990 and launched that entire era. It was he who Ten Hag’s United almost had to pass to get back to Wembley.

Only a late VAR call saved United from further embarrassment in the semi-final against Coventry
Only a late VAR call saved United from further embarrassment in the semi-final against Coventry (fake images)

Then there is the preparation for this final. Has there ever been an individual story that seemed as ripe for a narrative twist as Marcus Rashford’s? On Tuesday he was excluded from an England tournament team for the first time in his career, and that in the wake of a poor season.

And yet, it still has potential for a moment. Now he has even greater motivation. Ten Hag could use it. At United they are already talking about Eric Cantona in 1996, or Norman Whiteside in 1985.

The city really doesn’t need to indulge in any of that. They can simply point to the performance of the last few weeks, Foden’s form.

That is why the absence of Harry Maguire is important, because he would be suitable for this type of approach. United have to sit deep. They could do with Casemiro reviving his own form in front of the backline, if only for one night. Then they would seek to release Alejandro Garnacho and Rashford.

It says a lot that you are looking for that: a little magic, counter-attacking football, the luck of the cup. However, it is the last word and some people will want to have the last word.

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