Perspective is a curious thing. From one point of view, Sunday’s League Cup final could bring Pep Guardiola his first trophy as manager of Manchester City and herald the start of a great era of silverware. But so high were expectations in November and December, when Man City seemed all but unbeatable, that were the club to lose to Arsenal, it would mean this season risks feeling like a failure, a possible quadruple reduced in the space of a week to a possible double.
On the same day, two of the other grandees of English football, Manchester United and Chelsea, meet at Old Trafford. It’s not merely a battle between two managers who have been sniping at each other all season; it’s also a clash of two sides whose recent form has been patchy, whose managers are conducting complicated political campaigns and who could conceivably find themselves slipping out of the gilded top four and so missing out on Champions League qualification. Sunday, for varying reasons, is a big day for a lot of Premier League clubs.
Part of Man City’s problem is that it is too good. It is 16 points clear at the top of the table. Winning the Premier League no longer seems relevant. By the time the title is confirmed, possibly as early as next month, it will have seen inevitable for so long that it will feel as though it’s no longer an achievement. The attention had already moved on. Talk of a possible quadruple was perhaps premature, but given how well Guardiola's men were playing, it seemed reasonable enough, which is why Monday’s FA Cup defeat to third-tier Wigan was such a shock.
Rationally, it should be nothing to worry about. City had most of the ball and most of the chances. Wigan rode its luck to an extent and its goal was the result of a bizarre mistake by Kyle Walker and more leaden-footed goalkeeping from Claudio Bravo, who surely won’t play again this season as long as Ederson remains fit. Perhaps David Silva and Leroy Sane weren’t quite at their sharpest after significant layoffs, but they’ll be back.
But reason isn’t necessarily the dominant factor. What if Arsenal wins on Sunday? Arsene Wenger’s side remains inconsistent and prone to self-destructive laxity, but that was true last season when it produced one of its inexplicably excellent performances to beat City at Wembley in the FA Cup semifinal. The danger then is that City comes to be regarded as a team of chokers, the sort of reputation that can become self-fulfilling if their players begin to believe it of themselves.
The biggest question over City, anyway, was whether it is defensively robust enough to cope in the latter stages of the Champions League when it cannot rely on opponents to be blown away or intimidated by its attacking verve. Lose on Sunday, and it could be, slightly ridiculously, that this season ends up being regarded as anti-climactic for City when the truth is that it has played some of the best football the Premier League has ever seen.
For Man United and Chelsea, the issues are far less elevated. This isn’t about reputation or how history will regard them; it’s about ensuring they finish in the top four. Tottenham sits in fifth, but has picked up more points in 2018 than any other Premier League side, while Liverpool has lost only once in its last 18 league games. A draw could see Chelsea slip out of the top four, while defeat would leave United with just a one-point lead over Spurs in fifth, provided they beat Crystal Palace.
Perhaps Antonio Conte doesn’t care too much. It’s widely believed he will leave at the end of the season anyway, meaning the main challenge for him is progress in the Champions League which, even if it doesn’t bring glory, might at least challenge the perception that he under-performs in European competition.
But Mourinho certainly cares. Having already agreed to a contract extension, he has begun machinating against Paul Pogba, much as a new contract at Real Madrid led to Jorge Valdano being ousted as technical director and a civil war with Iker Casillas. That Mourinho is frustrated with Pogba’s tactical ill-discipline has been clear for some time, but the campaign has been ramped up over the past few weeks, with his substitutions against Tottenham and Newcastle, followed by overt criticism after defeat at St James’ Park.
Leaving Pogba on the bench vs. Sevilla while adopting a 4-3-3, supposedly the shape Pogba believes suits him best (and certainly the shape most outside observers believe suits him best) seems remarkably pointed, even by Mourinho’s standards. With Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini both injured, Pogba probably has to play on Sunday, adding another layer of intrigue to an already important game.
Since Guardiola and Mourinho arrived in England in the summer of 2016, the underlying narrative has been about the two managers. As Guardiola seeks his first trophy with City and Mourinho plays a dangerous game with his most expensive signing, Sunday feels like a crunch day in that story.