At the end of a long but satisfying day at Wembley, Pep Guardiola was posed a question that has long been asked of the League Cup. It has come, in a curious way, to almost define the competition’s very existence.
What does it actually mean? That’s all the more pointed when you have as won as much as Guardiola has.
This is also why you knew it meant so much to Aston Villa. It would have been some glory, for the first time in 24 years. They came so close to it, and certainly a lot closer than anyone expected.
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Dean Smith said that made the manner of it painful for the players, but he was sure to add that they will wake up on Monday morning feeling a bit of pride. To force Guardiola to bring on Kevin De Bruyne, and City into just hacking the ball away, was a testament to their display. The defending champions don’t usually allow themselves to be subjected to such mayhem. Villa disrupted their sense of control. “We went toe to toe,” Smith said.
What this should now really mean for Villa, however, is the next step. They need it to power their survival push.
“The performance level today is the standard that we have to be,” Smith added. “We were written off after Southampton but there haven’t been many of those performances. City are one of the top teams in the world. We came here to win. Our concentration goes to the Premier League. You can’t hide from the results yesterday. We’ll take heart from this performance. If we play like this we’ll get out of the relegation places.”
That could yet be the greatest meaning of this final for Villa.
As for City, it’s a bit more complex, not least when it comes to counting trophies. When a question was put to Guardiola that referenced last season’s treble, he raised four fingers and pointedly said “four trophies”.
And if you are counting the Community Shield – as Guardiola evidently does – it is eight trophies from 11. There has never been a period of domestic dominance like it, where such a concentration of silverware has been at one club.
Not even Liverpool 1981/84 or any of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides could match it.
This is why the League Cup was about something bigger for City and Guardiola, particularly since he has pretty much called for the competition’s discontinuation. It was about that record, that relentlessness, that he is evidently so proud of.
When asked whether he could ever imagine it when he came here, or through that barren first season, Guardiola said “definitely not”.
Others may have a different opinion.
You might even say that such domination is actually quite easy to imagine when you put a super-funded club, that are effectively a vehicle of a state’s foreign policy, with the greatest manager in the world.
This is why, as Smith added afterwards, Villa “were 18-1 to win”. City bringing on a £50m centre-half was seen as something of a surprise. It spoke to the strength of their squad, but also ensured the game meant a lot to some of City’s less-used players.
Guardiola went out of his way to praise three of them: John Stones, Claudio Bravo and man of the match Phil Foden.
Stones’ display – and particularly that second-half header that so averted danger – was all the more important given the slip that led to Villa’s goal. It meant a difficult afternoon became a defiant one.
Even that paled next to Bravo’s supreme save. He was, once again in a cup competition, the hero. Guardiola described him as one of the “best professionals” he’s ever known.
The best player on the day, however, was Foden. He was named man of the match, in what felt like a significant step for the young player. Still someone who hasn’t fully made the breakthrough to prime starter, this might be that moment.
It does feel like this is also a better moment for City, that the better form of the wider squad now reflects and feeds into. The slackness of late 2019 is gone, replaced by a new slickness that we really saw late on in Madrid. It would be grounds for a title surge … if Liverpool weren’t so far ahead. City, however, now have other ambitions. The Champions League is in sight.
That may be the real meaning of this League Cup victory. It might lead to an even better record.