Manchester City’s quest for a historic quadruple steps into higher gear Saturday when they face Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup semifinals at Wembley Stadium.
The reigning Premier League champions are waging a weekly battle with Liverpool for the top of the Premier League table, with the Reds again reclaiming the top spot on a provisional basis with a 3-1 victory at Southampton on Friday.
Manchester City (26-2-4) are two points behind the Merseysiders but have a match in hand that will be made up with the all-important Manchester derby versus eternal rivals United on April 24 at Old Trafford.
This match kicks off a crucial two-game set outside league play for the Cityzens, who will face Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday at their gleaming new White Hart Stadium — christened Wednesday with a victory over Crystal Palace — in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie.
All season long, City manager Pep Guardiola has yearned for his side to embrace the challenge of trying to make history, and he is not backing off from that belief heading into his weekend’s match versus Brighton.
“I feel the pressure in November, December, (when you are) away eight points (behind),” he said at his Friday press conference. “It is four or five months of the season and you are far away or out of a competition.
“But not now. Now is a joy, and incredible moments – I am more relaxed, you have to enjoy these moments. Now is the moment to enjoy things. To try and reach the FA Cup final – what pressure is that? No pressure at all.”
The FA Cup is the lone domestic trophy he has not won in his stops in Spain, Germany, and England, and the history of England’s oldest competition holds a place of deep esteem for the Spaniard as he tries to claim a sixth such trophy for Manchester City and first since 2011.
“When I was young in Catalonia you saw the final of FA Cup more than Premier League games,” he said. “The tradition, the fans, the managers. I cannot deny how nice it would be for me personally.
“The club has won it five times and we want another one, so we will try.”
City have had a fairly easy path to Wembley, facing only one Premier League side in their route to Wembley, but they were nearly derailed by Swansea City in the quarterfinals. The recently relegated Wales side were two goals to the good at home after the hour mark in a match with driving rain and fierce wind before the Mancunians staged an epic comeback.
It began with a goal by Bernardo Silva in the 69th minute, created by Sergio Aguero shortly after he came off the bench to replace an ineffective Riyad Mahrez. Aguero was blessed by fate as his penalty on 79 minutes cannoned off the post and Swansea keeper Kristoffer Nordfeldt into the net for an arguably undeserved equaliser despite City’s usual monopoly of possession.
The Argentina international added to the controversy two minutes from time, heading home a cross from Silva despite appearing to be offsides during the buildup. Aguero was held out of Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over Cardiff City after being forced off in the second half of the win over Fulham, but Guardiola confirmed the striker will be making the trek to Wembley.
Left back Oleksander Zinchenko, however, has been ruled out after being forced off in the first half versus Cardiff with a hamstring injury, perhaps paving the way for Benjamin Mendy to return. Danilo and Fabian Delph also remain options, though the latter has struggled recently.
Aside from Zinchenko’s injury, there was almost a non-chalance to City’s win over Cardiff. Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane both scored before halftime in their side’s seventh win on the trot in all competitions and eighth in league play. The Bluebirds had only one shot on target and four overall as the Cityzens enjoyed over 70 percent possession and extended their overall unbeaten run to 13 matches (12-1-0).
De Bruyne, along with Fernandinho, could be the two City players who make or break this quadruple quest. Having already endured two spells on the sidelines due to injury, the Belgium international concedes he will not be 100 percent during this challenging run-in, but he is game to contribute to history.
“I don’t know what my level is going to be but to be fair I don’t really care,” De Bruyne said according to The Guardian. “Now it’s the business end [of the year], I just need to do what I can do to help the team win games. If that means playing five games or 10 games, I’ll take it all. It’s been that kind of season.
“It’s like 12 or 13 cup games. It makes it exciting. In the end maybe we lose everything but at least we are here at this stage. It’s been incredible, so just keep on going, try to win Saturday and hopefully go to another final. For me personally I’ve not been there [to an FA Cup final] yet, I’ve not won it.”
Brighton and Hove Albion (9-6-16) are getting a respite from the relegation scrap with their first FA Cup semifinal appearance since reaching the 1983 final and losing to Manchester United 4-0 in a replay after drawing 2-2.
The Seagulls have traversed a difficult course, winning three road matches overall. One was a fourth-round replay at West Bromwich Albion, and Brighton survived penalties at Milwall in the quarterfinals after rallying from two goals down in the final 11 minutes on goals by Jurgen Locadia in the 88th minute and Solly March in the 95th.
Overcoming that adversity makes the trip to Wembley all the more special for Chris Hughton, who has told his team to be brave against the reigning Premier League champions and overwhelming favourites for this contest.
“It’s a big opportunity for everyone here at the football club, but it’s not been difficult for me to separate the league and cup, because we know how important the Premier League is,” Hughton said at his Friday press conference. “One thing we’ve always stressed to the players throughout the competition is that there are a lot of good players who have never had the opportunity to get to a final of this competition, or even a semi-final.
“They’ve got to make the most of it and put in a performance that they can be proud of – the occasion will take care of itself, we certainly won’t have to motivate anybody to run harder or play as well as they can on the afternoon. We have to deal with their quality, that’s our biggest task – we have to give everything, irrespective of the result, and to be able to come away proud of the performance by the team.”
Brighton, though, come into this match on the heels of back-to-back defeats, including a 3-0 midweek hiding at Chelsea, and have been held off the scoresheet in consecutive matches for the first time since defeats to Liverpool and Southampton in late August.
March is a question mark for this contest after being forced off in the first half versus Chelsea with a calf injury but did travel with the team. Pascal Gross is out due to injury, which means there could be a place in the starting XI for 35-year-old Glenn Murray, who leads Brighton with 13 goals in all competitions.
“We have usually been quite good at soaking up a lot of pressure and hitting teams on the counter attack,” midfielder Dale Stephens told The Argus. “I will be happy to see something similar this weekend.
“You can do it for long spells but you have got to carry your own threat and have a release somewhere.”
City ran out 2-0 winners at the Etihad in the only meeting between the sides on Sept. 29. Raheem Sterling scored just before the half-hour and set up a strike by Aguero in the 65th minute. Guardiola’s team enjoyed a 27-4 advantage in shots, including an 8-1 count on target.
The sides have split two FA Cup meetings, with City winning 5-1 in the third round in 1924, and Brighton claiming a 4-0 victory in the fourth round en route to their 1983 finals appearance.
The winner of this match will face the winner of the Wolverhampton-Watford match at Wembley Stadium on May 18 to determine the victor of the 138th FA Cup.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: MANCHESTER CITY 3, Brighton and Hove Albion 0.
(Leroy Sane photo courtesy Manchester City official Twitter account)