Two teams, two different goals, one trophy. The FA Cup final 2018-19 will mark everything enjoyable about English football " its diversity and its unpredictability. Premier League champions Manchester City are on the brink of a domestic treble " a feat never achieved before in men's football in England " while their opponents Watford are on a downward slope after a positive start to the campaign and are trying to salvage a season of 'what ifs' by securing a spot in the Europa League by winning the FA Cup.
Contrary to popular perceptions, the match will not be an easy walk in the park for the Sky Blues though, who will have to beat a side who for most parts of the season looked favourites to secure a Europa League spot by virtue of their league position.
Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are chasing a domestic treble while Javi Gracia's men are hunting for a Europa League spot. AFP
Pep Guardiola's men have had yet another stellar season which saw them lift the League Cup in February and then see off Liverpool in a thrilling end to the Premier League. But things haven't been all rosy in Manchester after reports emerged of a possible ban from the Champions League over breaches in Financial Fair Play rules. Add to that the unnecessary controversy of City players singing an offensive chant that mocked Liverpool and the club's fans on a plane.
Digging deep for motivation
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany has openly declared that his side will not be lacking in motivation for Saturday's big final but it is only fair to assume the team will be exhausted, mentally more than physically, after a 14-match winning run to end the season.
The possibility of a treble will excite them but after a week of celebrations, Guardiola's biggest challenge would be to get the City engine revving again. Riyad Mahrez's sensational goal and Kevin de Bruyne's return from injury in their previous outing would give the coach a few positive options to freshen up the attack though. The Belgian might still not be available to feature in the starting XI but width will be a key for City against Watford so one shouldn't be surprised if Mahrez and Bernado Silva start in the wings with Raheem Sterling playing the role of a secondary striker.
Gracia's brave new world
Unlike City, Watford have never won a major trophy in England. But that won't stop Javi Gracia's men from giving it a fight, knowing fully well that on their day the Hornets are a very tough side to beat. This Watford team epitomise English football " a bunch of big lads who are not afraid to throw around their bodies if the need arises. The average height of the outfield players who faced West Ham in their last game of the weekend was 1.82 metres.
Strangely though, Gracia, a defensive midfielder in his playing days in the LaLiga, uses a formation that's more synonymous with the great, attacking Brazilian sides in the 1980s and 1990s " the 4-2-2-2. And for most parts, this has been the reason behind the Hornets' sparkling performances this season. The system used by Gracia is reliant on full-backs doubling up as wingers. Troy Deeney plays as a target-man for these wingers to hit their crosses to while ex-Barcelona star Gerard Deulofeu waits for the Englishman's knockdowns to run into spaces.
To his credit, Gracia has been fairly successful in implementing a fairly complicated system. In his full-backs, especially Jose Holebas, he has players who can whip in crosses at will. They are more than willing to cover both the flanks. But the problem with the system is its demand for excellent tactical and positional awareness. For example, it is important for the holding midfielders in the team such as Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure to cover the flanks when the full-backs venture into attacking areas. One mistake and the team is susceptible to direct or through balls down the wings. These occasional brain freezes sum up Watford's 2019. The seventh place in the league was well within their grasp for most parts of the season but silly errors ensured they ended in the bottom half of the table and that will be the team's biggest fear in their Cup final against City on Saturday.
Watford have gone 12 straight matches without a clean sheet and were thrashed by West Ham United in their final game of the season while City have been on an undefeated streak in England. The results do hide the fact that Watford have played well in some of these matches. Take the penultimate match of the Premier League season against Chelsea for example. They dominated the Blues and should have arguably won the match but ended up losing after gifting three goals to Chelsea. If Chelsea were effective, expect City to be ruthless. You simply do not give a side with Sergio Aguero in the ranks a lot of opportunities.
In any case, Watford's attacking nature and porous defence mean there will no shortage of action in the FA Cup final which might, from the next year, be called "Heads up FA Cup Final" after Prince William suggested using football to encourage conversations on mental health issues. City start as favourites but expect the Hornets to come hard at them in the opening minutes.