Manchester City supporters were incredibly disappointed to suffer defeat in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday, understandably so.
Missing out on the chance to play in the final and losing to a rival like Liverpool on such a big stage, is always going to hurt. City have now lost three consecutive FA Cup semi-finals, and have lost on each of their past three appearances at Wembley Stadium.
Worse than that, though, was the manor of this latest defeat. Pep Guardiola’s side were abject in the first half, unable to escape Liverpool’s aggressive press and blunt in attack. Two of the goals were completely avoidable too — City’s failure to properly mark known aerial threat Ibrahima Konate from a corner was compounded by Zack Steffen’s horrendous error that gifted Sadio Mane his first goal.
READ MORE: Man City fightback runs Liverpool close after first-half calamity
Little could be done to prevent Mane’s magnificent second, though the timing of it just before the break came as a sucker-punch. To their credit, City fought valiantly in the second half, and if it weren’t for some wasteful finishing from Gabriel Jesus, he might have completed a remarkable comeback.
But it finished 3-2, and some fans needed someone to blame. As is often the case when things don’t go well, Guardiola’s team selection was widely called into question, a frankly ridiculous situation given the circumstances.
In case it had escaped anyone’s attention, City went into Saturday’s showpiece fixture having played three extremely physically and mentally draining matches in the previous 11 days. That level of exertion, combined with the fact that three City players picked up injuries in the trip to Madrid three days earlier, meant that Guardiola was always going to have to rotate his team.
Of the outfielders that started in the goalless draw with Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Rodri, Aymeric Laporte and Riyad Mahrez dropped to the bench. Kyle Walker missed out entirely, after badly twisting his ankle.
The likes of Joao Cancelo, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva were asked to soldier on, the latter incredibly so given the amount of running he’s done over the past week-and-a-half. The capable attacking trio of Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus started at Wembley, having not played in midweek (Sterling made a 25 minute cameo), but with seven changes to the line-up City looked disjointed.
Plenty of City fans online — not to mention the pundits on BBC Sport — questioned why Guardiola made just one substitution in the second half to help City’s comeback bid, but the answer seems pretty obvious. If the players he selected were the ones with 90 minutes in their legs, why would he bring on those that needed a rest?
“We had a terrible… in terms of fixtures, travel and a lot of important games so that’s why we need the fresh legs,” Guardiola said post-match.
“It is what it is — when you play a lot, a lot, a lot of games and we have not the longest [deepest] squad — when everybody is fit it’s ok, but when we have a few injuries it is not enough. We come back from Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and now Liverpool again in a short time — we can rotate some players that need it but we know that when we arrive in this stage of the season and we are fighting for the titles you have no rest, so we accept it.”
De Bruyne was a surprise inclusion on the bench after he hobbled off in Madrid, yet despite warming up on the Wembley touchline, it appears his involvement was never really on the cards. “At the end I didn’t want to take the risk to lose him for the next game,” Guardiola said, explaining that there was a risk of the stitches in the midfielder’s leg reopening. Gundogan was apparently not an option either, having picked up a knock on the knee.
Ultimately though, City played quite well for much of the second half. They were playing with a good rhythm, and as Guardiola has explained before, he doesn’t like interrupting that by making substitutions.
He added: “Fernandinho was playing amazing, Bernardo as well, and I think Gabrielwas playing good and Raheem was playing good, that’s why sometimes you don’t do it [make substitutions]. Of course if we had scored the third goal I’m pretty sure in extra-time we would have done it but we didn’t have many options.”
It shouldn’t be overlooked that after resting virtually his whole side in midweek, Jurgen Klopp was able to name a full-strength Liverpool XI including all his key players. Competing with that was never going to be easy, squad rotation or not.
The only legitimate criticism of Guardiola’s team selection was the inclusion of reserve goalkeeper Steffen; it’s hard to imagine Ederson losing his cool like that. That aside, the claims that Guardiola ‘overthought’ his selection of him, or showed that he does not care about the cup, are ludicrous.
With seven crucial Premier League games coming up and a Champions League semi-final on the horizon, the FA Cup semi-final was always going to be the match to rest players. The reality of fighting for every title is that come this stage of the season, some matches have to take precedence over others.
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