The Carabao Cup Final takes centre stage on Sunday afternoon, as Aston Villa meet Manchester City with both sides looking to take home the first trophy of the season.
Manchester City come into the game fresh from an impressive victory over Real Madrid in midweek, where a tactical masterclass from Pep Guardiola thwarted the Spanish giants. The victory leaves his side with three wins on the bounce in all competitions and full of confidence ahead of the clash with the Premier League strugglers.
Aston Villa were thrashed 6-1 by City back in January, and that will be fresh in Dean Smith’s mind. Their torrid run of form continued with a defeat to Southampton last weekend, where the manager claimed players had played themselves out of contention for the clash.
Manchester City’s last cup final victory saw them thrash Watford in the FA Cup final 6-0 last season, and could it be another unrelenting performance from the Premier League Champions. So do Villa stand any hope?
Aston Villa have switched to a back three since the turn of the year, and I’d expect them to continue in this formation, as they look to soak up the City pressure and hit the Citizens on the break.
Averaging just 47% possession this season, it has been a trademark of Villa’s style to sit in and soak up the pressure, and they will be relying upon a strong performance from January recruit Mbwana Samatta. The Tanzanian was a notable absentee from the heavy home defeat against Manchester City, which saw Villa line up without a recognised centre forward.
This will give Villa a glimmer of hope, as Samatta will be employed to challenge the backline of City and look to hold up the play. This added physicality, compared to the first meeting of the two sides, must be factored in, and he will be well suited to causing problems for the City backline.
However, the issue many sides have against City isn’t necessarily winning the first aerial battle, but picking up the second ball afterwards, and this is where Rodri has shone for City in games this season.
Jack Grealish and Trezeguet or Anwar El Ghazi, depending on who Dean Smith prefers in the right wing spot, have an important role of getting up to support Samatta and ensuring the striker doesn’t become isolated.
City can become overrun on the counter attack, as has been a theme this season, although in recent weeks they have coped much better with the threat and looked a much more organised unit against Leicester last week. This will be particularly worrying for Smith, as his side can struggle to create chances, particularly if Grealish is managed out of the game.
As Villa showed against Leicester in the Semi-Final, the wing backs joining the attacks is also crucial to any success, and Matt Targett and Frederic Guilbert have shown a willingness to do so this season. The wide areas will be the best areas to get at Manchester City, with full backs pushed high and the wingers often not tracking back, particularly Raheem Sterling down the left, so if they do get the chance to get out of their own half, these are the areas they can target, and will be their best hope.
Manchester City’s unique tactical approach which saw Gabriel Jesus on the left wing and Kevin De Bruyne as a false nine was excellent in playing against Real Madrid’s high defensive line and pressing football, but against Aston Villa, Sergio Aguero should return to lead the line, as the normal 4-3-3 makes its return.
Stopping De Bruyne from pulling the strings from deep is going to key to any faint hope Villa have, but the Belgian is full of confidence and in fine form, making it particularly hard to see past Villa stopping him.
The tempo they have attacked at in recent weeks has been indicative of a side hitting top form, and as with the 6-1 win over Aston Villa, their ability to quickly move the ball will cause a whole host of problems for the Midlands side, with the midfield duo, expected to be Marvelous Nakamba and Douglas Luiz, becoming easily overrun.
The deep defensive line means there will be little space in behind for City, but the defensive work of Grealish and either Trezeguet or El Ghazi will be targeted, and it is the right flank of Villa which is particularly worrying. The left back for City will operate high, allowing Sterling the freedom to drift centrally, and with issues picking these runners up from deep, I can see a vast amount of problems coming down this side. As well as coping with Sterling in central areas, this could provide an interesting option for a goalscorer if starting.
Cards often don’t appeal in finals, and with Villa sitting in, I don’t see many opportunities other than poor challenges, and referee Lee Mason is one of the more lenient referees on offer.
If City do move the ball quickly and at a high tempo early on, it could be a long afternoon for Smith’s side, and as they have shown in cup finals in the past, they don’t look to stop and manage a game as in the Premier League.
It would be no surprise to see City hit Villa early, and the frailties at the back for Smith’s side are too much to overlook. Villa have nothing to lose if behind, and as a result it is goals that stand out for me in this final. Manchester City to win and Over 3.5 goals takes appeal, and this is available at 2.05 (Bet365).
With many goalscoring options odds on for Manchester City, the assist market takes appeal, with Kevin De Bruyne priced at 2.75 (Bet365) to make an assist. He has had eighteen assists across the Champions League and Premier League this season, including two in his last three and two against Villa in the 6-1 win. He will have plenty of space to work his magic in this clash, and if City open up Villa on the break, he is often their driving force. As a result, I’d be happy to take the Belgian midfielder for an assist in this game, as a way to find value away from the goalscoring market.