League Cup Final
Aston Villa 1 Manchester City 2
So Man City it is. A third League Cup final triumph in a row. A fifth in seven seasons.
This is a cup that still matters. The leaps in the air and celebratory punches from the winners – for whom this might have been routine by now – told of the undimmed joy that winning silverware brings.
It is not the Champions League they crave to add to last season's domestic treble, but City and their trophy-gathering machine of a boss still wanted this.
It was a final that held the attention from start to finish because Villa were dogged, refused to cave in to markedly better opponents and gave themselves hope with a goal just before half-time.
This was no mere walk in the park as last year's FA Cup final had been when Watford were demolished 6-0. City had to work for this. And Villa's excellent vocal support pushed their team all the way. Villa gave it their all.
The Midlanders almost drew first blood when Anwar El Ghazi sent a header onto the roof of the City net, but Pep Guardiola's men were soon reminding us of why they have had a stranglehold on this competition in recent years, stringing together some of those silky trademark moves and high-precision geometry.
And on 20 minutes, Sergio Aguero clipped the holders in front from close range after Rodri had picked out Phil Foden down the right channel and the youngster, who looked so impressive from the start, nodded back into space for the Argentine marksman.
Ten later, it felt like the game might be as good as over when Rodri, barely challenged, rose to head home an Ilkay Gundogan corner. The fact the kick was erroneously awarded hardly seemed to matter. Only a block from Tyrone Mings prevented Wembley lad Raheem Sterling from adding a third and we awaited a procession.
But Villa got themselves a lifeline five minutes before the break. A slip by John Stones allowed El Ghazi to scamper down the left and put in the perfect cross for Mbwana Samatta to bury with a spectacular diving header.
City had most of the possession throughout, but not the hatful of chances you might expect, though keeper Orjan Nyland had to be sharp to get down to another Rodri header and Aguero crashed a volley into the side-netting.
Villa stayed in it and very nearly drew level two minutes from time when a close-range Bjorn Engels header was turned onto the inside of a post by Claudio Bravo. But in truth, the right team won. Villa skipper Jack Grealish, who made his name with a brilliant semi-final performance against Liverpool a few years ago, could not quite turn in the performance he needed to make a difference.
It’s possible plenty of the current generation don’t get what the League Cup has meant to English football.
When you are fed a heavy diet of Premier League and Champions League football, there is barely enough appetite left for the FA Cup, let alone the second domestic cup competition.
But it still matters all right, and probably thanks to a decision taken a few years into its infancy to stage the final at the home of football. From 1967 onward, it has been staged at Wembley and Cardiff – during the stadium rebuild - rather than over two legs.
At a stroke the prestige magnified. Throw in European football too for the winners and it had a recipe for success.
Just think of the clubs whose greatest days have been in the competition and you might think it holds greater allure for the underclass than the big guns.
QPR, Swindon Town, Stoke City, Oxford United, Tranmere Rovers, Bradford City, Swansea City, Oldham Athletic, Luton Town. Take away the League Cup and the history of all these clubs would be poorer without that moment in the sun. On this stage. The game itself would be poorer.
Think of all those amazing tales written into folklore. Rodney Marsh and QPR, then a third tier outfit, coming from behind to beat West Brom 3-2 in that first Wembley final. Don Rogers’ clinching goal against Arsenal for another third division outfit two years later.
There was Oxford’s unlikely triumph in 86, spearheaded by future Liverpool and Repblic of Ireland stars Ray Houghton and John Aldridge, and Luton’s fairytale win over Arsenal in 88 when two-goal Brian Stein and keeper Andy Dibble ensured a lifetime of adulation from grateful Hatters fans.
But adding value to those glorious moments has been the determination of bigger clubs to claim the trophy down the years. There were the four in a row from Liverpool in the 1980s, the three finals in a row for Brian Clough’s newly-emerged Nottingham Forest, the two wins in three years for Jose Mourinho’s reborn Chelsea.
With seven triumphs overall in the competition, Man City are just one behind Liverpool now. Man United, Villa and Chelsea can all boast five successes in what is now the Carabao Cup, but which has also in the past been the Milk Cup, Littlewoods Cup, Rumbelows Cup, Carling Cup, Capital One Cup, Coca Cola Cup, Worthington Cup. In all its guises it has been a competition for true fans to cherish. Villa also have reason to cherish the competition as the first winners back in 1961.
The League Cup has undergone changes down the years but retained its essential appeal. And the one thing it has always had, apart from in the opening seasons, is universal participation. But now, there may be a very real danger lurking – one with a direct link to expansion of European competition.
Because of the pressure to relieve the bigger clubs of fixtures so they might play extra games in Europe, there has been talk, not for the first time, of the sides qualifying for Europe being ‘excused’ duty in the League Cup.
That would surely spell the beginning of the end, because the competition surely needs to retain that all-inclusive feel to retain its special feel and sense of history.
Villa: Nyland – Guilbert, Engels, Mings, Targett – Elmohamady (Trezeguet 70), Luiz, Nakamba, El Ghazi (Hourihane 70) – Grealish – Samatta (Davis 80). Subs not used: Reina, Taylor, Lansbury, Konsa
City: Bravo – Walker, Stones, Fernandinho – Rodri, Gundogan (De Bruyne 58) – Foden, David Silva (Bernardo Silva 77), Zinchenko – Sterling, Aguero (Jesus 84). Subs not used: Ederson, Mendy, Mahrez, Otamendi