The Carabao Cup is up for grabs when Arsenal face Manchester City at Wembley on Sunday, but which manager needs the trophy more?
Arsene Wenger is targeting the first League Cup of his 22-year reign at Arsenal, and the 68-year-old will pit his wits against a City side who have swept almost everybody away under Pep Guardiola this season, as the club looks to obliterate the memory of last year’s shortcomings.
City’s first tangible reward in this most remarkable of campaigns could come in the shape of the Carabao Cup this weekend, and with the club still smarting from their FA Cup exit to Wigan, Guardiola's side will be looking to respond in style in their now-treble pursuit.
But with bigger fish to fry in the coming months, does Guardiola really need this more than Wenger? We weigh up both sides of the argument…
Still a waste of energy?
Guardiola described the tournament as “wasted energy” earlier this season, taking time and focus away from other, grander endeavours.
But perhaps this was all a front from the Spaniard, for while other managers have viewed the cup as a chance to ‘play the kids’ – with Wenger the trendsetter in this aspect – Guardiola has not followed suit.
A look at City’s third-round team – in comparison to Arsenal’s XI – highlights this:
Man City XI v West Brom: Bravo, Danilo, Stones, Mangala, Delph, Gundogan, B Silva, Toure, Sterling, Sane, Jesus.
Subs: Ederson, Walker, Adarabioyo, Fernandinho, Zinchenko, Foden, Diaz.
Arsenal XI v Doncaster: Ospina, Chambers, Mertesacker, Holding, Wilshere, Elneny, Nelson, Maitland-Niles, Walcott, Sanchez, Giroud.
Subs: Macey, Monreal, Willock, Dasilva, Iwobi, Nketiah, Akpom.
It’s an ode to City’s strength in depth, but Guardiola mixed his XI with regular starters and experienced (and expensive) back-ups – namely Danilo, Bernardo Silva and Yaya Toure – while youth players settled for a place on the bench.
It was an early indication that Guardiola wants to right the wrongs of a trophyless first season in England, which ultimately saw the ability of a man so accustomed to trophy-laden campaigns at Barcelona and Bayern Munich come under intense scrutiny.
And though City have a healthy lead at the Premier League’s summit and a spot in the Champions League quarters all-but secured - the club will want to quickly forget their FA Cup exit - their name has not been etched onto any trophy just yet.
Therefore the Carabao Cup offers Guardiola the first real opportunity to silence his doubters. Even if he doesn’t show it, he certainly knows it.
Wenger’s last stand?
Wenger has greater experience at dealing with the doubters, and at no time was this more evident than last year.
With his job seemingly on the line at the tail-end of last season, Arsenal overcame City 2-1 in the FA Cup semi-final before beating Chelsea by the same scoreline in the final.
Days after their third FA Cup triumph in four years, Wenger signed a two-year contract extension, declaring his intent to “mount a sustained league challenge”.
That hasn’t quite gone to plan.
With 11 league games to go this season, Arsenal find themselves 27 points behind leaders City, while the ‘old faithful’ FA Cup has already eluded them, having suffered their earliest ever exit under Wenger when losing to Nottingham Forest in last month’s third round.
The club have not reached the next level Wenger promised last May, and there are now whispers that this two-year deal is disguising the fact he could leave this summer.
It could all depend on how their campaign closes. A disastrous loss against City may prove damaging beyond repair, but equally, the prospect of an emphatic victory over Guardiola’s men could help Wenger keep the wolves from the door and show that this revival is indeed a two-year project.
However, what’s arguably more important for Wenger is securing Arsenal’s return to the Champions League.
The most obvious route to Europe’s premier competition is a top-four finish, but Arsenal find themselves eight points adrift of fourth-placed Chelsea. The emphasis is therefore transferred onto the Europa League - victory in that tournament will confirm Arsenal’s spot in next season’s Champions League group stage.
It was a gamble which paid dividends for Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United last year, but Wenger’s hand is somewhat weakened given that Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and AC Milan remain in the competition.
Nevertheless, Arsenal must still be considered one of the favourites, and with such giants in the way, if the Gunners are standing tallest in Lyon come May 16, you imagine Wenger would have done enough to see out his contract.
Bigger concerns to come
City’s treble dream relies on Carabao Cup glory, and though the quadruple is no longer a possibility, it would still put them on course for a stellar campaign.
Meanwhile, Arsenal will strive to put the brakes on this charge and mask their own league struggles with cup success once more.
And though greater battles are evidently looming for Wenger and Guardiola, with the real aim for both managers lying in Europe, this weekend’s final can be the catalyst to further success.
Expect nothing less than full-strength, and complete commitment to the cause, from the pair this Sunday.
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