London: The roars grew louder inside Old Trafford as Erik ten Hag addressed Manchester United fans from the middle of the field, reminding them of the role they have in protecting the club’s greatest-ever achievement.
There was one game to go this season, the United manager told the baying crowd, and his players standing right in front of him were ready to give their all to beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium.
“We count on you as well,” he said, pointing to the supporters, who by now were punching the air in defiance. “They will give everything when you are at our backs, and I’m sure we’ve a really good chance to take the cup back to Old Trafford.”
As rallying cries go, it was pretty much pitch-perfect from Ten Hag, who knows exactly what’s at stake Saturday in a local derby with widespread repercussions.
For United, this is about much more than capturing a second trophy of the season — after the English League Cup in February that ended the club’s six-year title drought — to cap an encouraging first season under Ten Hag. It’s also about preserving United’s proud status as the only English team to have won the league-FA Cup-European Cup treble in the same season.
City, after all, is two wins from emulating that feat, having already clinched the Premier League title and booked its place in the Champions League final against Inter Milan in Istanbul June 10.
That United can ruin City’s treble bid adds more spice to the first cup final between the rivals, which is taking place about 170 miles (270 kilometers) south of Manchester.
City starts as the undoubted favorite on the back of its stunning form since February reeled in long-time leader Arsenal in the Premier League race and saw Bayern Munich and Real Madrid swept aside in the Champions League knockout stage.
Before a much-weakened team — featuring a bunch of youth players — lost at Brentford 1-0 in a league match with little riding on it last Sunday, City went on a 25-match unbeaten run in all competitions and won 20 of them. Along the way, Madrid was beaten 4-0, Bayern 3-0 and Arsenal 4-1. Back in October, City thrashed United 6-3.
All those games were at home, though, and City hasn’t been quite so machine-like on the road. And that’s not the only source of hope for United, which is seeking its 13th FA Cup title — with only Arsenal (14) having more.
City manager Pep Guardiola talks often of his players having “rhythm” but that might have been lost after he chose to rotate his lineups for the final two league games, with the title wrapped up. Before the loss at Brentford, City was possibly fortunate to come away from Brighton with a 1-1 draw.
Erling Haaland has 52 goals in all competitions in a stunning first season at City but it’s just one goal in his last six games for the Norway striker.
Meanwhile, United won its final four matches in the league, conceding just two goals in that period. And in the last meeting between the teams, United won at Old Trafford 2-1 in January — albeit after a debatable equalizing goal from Marcus Rashford.
City is a different proposition four-and-a-half months on, though, and has more experience of these big, defining games than United in recent years. Guardiola certainly does — he is looking to claim the 34th trophy of his managerial career, and the 13th in his seven years at City.
That, of course, would set up City for a shot at standing shoulder-to-shoulder with United’s class of ’99.
“I will start to think about the treble,” Guardiola said, “when I go to Istanbul with two titles in my pocket.”
United striker Anthony Martial will miss the final after sustaining a hamstring injury in the team’s final league game of the season, the 2-1 win over Fulham Sunday.
Marcus Rashford is expected to start up front, with Jadon Sancho set to be on the left wing and possibly Bruno Fernandes on the right to allow United to field a sturdier central-midfield three, likely comprising of Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and either Fred or Scott McTominay.
Kevin De Bruyne and Jack Grealish missed City’s final two league games because of minor injury issues, though Guardiola said he hoped the midfielders would be fit for the final.
City has no other injuries, with Nathan Ake playing 63 minutes against Brentford on his return from a hamstring problem.
The engraver got a head start.
The word “Manchester” has already been engraved on the trophy to highlight the unique nature of this final, the 142nd in the world’s oldest knockout competition.
There’s set to be travel chaos around the final because of rail strikes that mean there will be no train services running between Manchester and London Saturday.
The Football Association is providing 120 buses — 60 per team — to help transport fans of City and United to and from the match.