By Kevin Affleck
Ten minutes. That’s all it took for the game, for a shot at a huge cup upset, to flash before this team’s very eyes.
Roberto Pereyra was one-on-one with Ederson on the edge of the 18-yard box and had the chance to strike first blood in this contest. He’s rattled in much more difficult ones against Wolves, Brighton, Huddersfield and Chelsea this season and there probably wasn’t too many others you wanted to be on the end of that chance. Troy Deeney perhaps. Maybe Gerard Deulofeu. But Pereyra’s a big-game hunter, a player who has appeared in a Champions League final against Barcelona. He probably slots that past Heurelho Gomes, Ben Foster or Pontus Dahlberg in training every day with casual insouciance.
You hoped he might roll it to the right of Ederson, go underneath him or even dink one over him, like he did against Rui Patricio at Molineux. But he stroked it to the Brazilian’s left, Ederson stuck out his right foot and the chance went begging. It felt like a big moment even then and it turned out to be exactly that. Javi Gracia turned to his bench and shook with frustration. He saw his game-plan coming together right there. He knew that was the moment he had promised his players in the team meeting that would come and they had to take. No-one really expected it to come after 600 seconds, especially after a 35-year wait to play in the final of this famous old cup again, but there it was, there it came and there it went.
You just can’t miss chances like that against such high-class opposition as they make you pay a heavy, heavy price. And so it proved. Sixteen minutes later, City were in front through David Silva and then a further 12 minutes later, they were over the hill and out of sight when Raheem Sterling scored the easiest goal he’ll ever net. What was tough to swallow was that it wasn’t as if City had had to work hard for their two goals, or indeed any of their goals, by sticking one in the top corner or by popping one in after a 20-pass move. They all fell into the soft category.
There was always hope for the Hornets as this resilient lot came from two down on this very ground last month, but doing it against Matt Doherty and Ryan Bennett is one thing, it’s another thing altogether when you have got Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte to try and get past.
They had a right good go, as they always do, and you can’t say accuse anyone of not putting in a shift or leaving anything out there. Roared on some magnificent support, they took the game to City to such an extent that Pep Guardiola sent for Kevin De Bruyne after 55 minutes. The Belgian was sent onto to help reclaim the midfield battle but he ended up scoring the goal that put the game beyond any reasonable doubt. Again, City didn’t have to work that hard to open up the Hornets. That’s what will annoy Gracia the most.
The fourth, scored by Gabriel Jesus just minutes after Gracia went for broke with two attacking subs, was just cruel. It was also likely to happen with the Hornets having to loosen the top button and go for it. There was no point opting for damage limitation in a cup final. City just tear you apart with wide open spaces to play in and they were devastating on the break. It kind of summed up the huge gulf in resources when Guardiola was able to bring on a player of Leroy Sane’s gifts with just under 20 minutes remaining. That’s all this overstretched defence needed was the lightning quick German running at them.
Gracia responded by bringing on Tom Cleverley as there was a worry the scoreline could get out of hand. He needed to lock it down as nobody deserved to be on the end of a shoeing, not after the record-breaking season this team has had. City, though, did help themselves to a fifth and a sixth, again both from close range and both from Sterling, and the final whistle came as something of a relief to everyone of a yellow persuasion.
City were just too good and sometimes you just have to hold your hand up and appreciate the quality of the opposition. They'll go down as one of the great teams in English football, but the fans waving the yellow and red flags stayed with the team right until the end, and the fact the City fans took time out from applauding their unprecedented domestic treble to acknowledge the unwavering support from the other end told its own story. Down but not out. Not by a long chalk.
HORNETS: Gomes (GK), Femenía, Mariappa, Cathcart, Holebas; Hughes (Cleverley 73), Doucouré, Capoue, Pereyra (Success 66); Deulofeu (Gray 66), Deeney (C).
Subs not used: Foster (GK), Janmaat, Masina, Kabasele.