Riyad Mahrez was the hat-trick hero, eclipsing Erling Haaland as Manchester City breezed past Sheffield United to the FA Cup final and on toward the Treble.
So Manchester City are through to the FA Cup final then, one step closer to the Treble that would be the crowning glory of the Abu Dhabi United project. And there was a hat-trick hero among their number at Wembley, though it wasn’t the guy everybody would have expected. Take a bow, Riyad Mahrez, now Manchester City’s second-highest goalscorer in all competitions this season – 33 behind the leader.
Pep Guardiola made six changes from the team that started against Bayern Munich but Erling Haaland started, his first match at Wembley. Whether motivated by a desire to help him break the record for the number of goals scored in one season, or to give him the experience of a cup match in front of pushing 70,000 people at a big stadium, it was a decision that said something; it was just impossible to tell exactly what.
Haaland is the sort of player who cannot thrive without delivery, and the focus on this one single player this season has left everybody else in the shade. Jack Grealish, among others, has really come of age, fulfilling the promise that was always perfectly evident in his younger years. Both started, with Grealish an impish presence on the left throughout, despite the near-Pavlovian boos that greeted him every time he got the ball. He would come to have his influence in the second half.
Otherwise, it was a much-changed team. Ederson was replaced by Stefan Ortega, who distinguished himself early on with a save after less than 90 seconds, when he blocked a Iliman Ndiaye shot from the first corner of the game.
Ruben Dias, John Stones, Kevin De Bruyne and Rodri joined Ederson on what felt more like a line of substitutes’ thrones than anything that could realistically be described as a ‘bench’. In the trade, this was what is known as a flex.
Sheffield United, meanwhile, arrived for this match with enough on their plate already. A return to the Premier League is so close that they can almost reach out and touch it. But while this semi-final might have had a hint of a foregone conclusion about it before it even started, the hope of the football supporter really does spring eternal. Thousands of fans made the trip to London for an awkwardly timed 4.45pm kick-off, presumably more in hope than expectation. And small wonder. In the previous round of this very competition, Manchester City put six goals past Championship leaders Burnley without reply.
The Manchester City changes and the early chance for Ndiaye offered hope, but the first half soon started to veer towards a predictable pattern: City passing the ball around, slowly but relentlessly increasing the pressure on the Sheffield United defence. But a couple of the crown jewels of the Haaland Delivery Service were sitting on the bench, and chances were few and far between with the opposing defence holding its shape.
Haaland had the ball in the back of the net after 15 minutes, but the whistle had already blown and every other player had stopped. It was his first meaningful contribution of the game, but as we’ve seen before, that is the just way he plays. When he’s not involved, he’s not involved.
Of course, Manchester City’s next Premier League game against Arsenal may have been occupying more minds than an FA Cup match against a team a division below them over the last couple of days or so. But the fluidity that we ordinarily associate with Manchester City was notable primarily by its absence for much of the first hour. City had the pressure, the possession and what chances were created did fall their way. But for all that possession, the final movement forward, the final incisive cut, was missing. On occasion, players would turn inside and make the easy pass. There were a couple of attempts at curlers from an angle which landed varying degrees of wide.
It took City 42 minutes to find a way through, and they needed a moment of hot-headedness from their opponents to get there. Daniel Jebbison swiped a leg at the ball inside his own penalty area, misjudged it horrendously, and caught Bernardo Silva instead on the foot, although there was also some suggestion that he might have nicked the ball first. But after a lengthy VAR interjection the penalty was given and Mahrez converted it.
While Jebbison may have brushed his studs against the ball it was still a rash challenge, especially coming as close as it did to half-time and a much-needed 15-minute breather.
On the hour came the goal which finally put the game beyond Sheffield United, whose central defence couldn’t cope with Mahrez running at them. With a gap having appeared between Jack Robinson and John Egan and the defenders’ body positions meaning that they were unable to get across to block him off, Mahrez surged through the space that opened up in front of him to place the ball into the corner and double Manchester City’s lead.
Five minutes later, Grealish threaded the ball inside from the left for Mahrez to complete his hat-trick. Who is this ‘Haaland’ fellow, anyway?
Grealish was withdrawn shortly afterwards, as was Haaland. Substitutions flowed, and with the game all but over as a contest both teams took their foot off the pedal a little. Sheffield United can take considerable heart from their performance at Wembley. They were compact and well-organised. They created a couple of chances. Indeed, things might have been somewhat different, had Ndiaye not missed the very early chance that he really should have scored.
But when it mattered, the difference in quality between the two teams showed. Ndiaye’s failure to take his early chance. Jebbison’s rash challenge inside the penalty area; to beat a team of Manchester City’s quality, you have to hope that they will have an off day while you win every one of the tiny moments that will end up deciding the final score. Somewhere in a parallel universe, Sheffield United went in at half-time a goal up, having comfortably kept their opponents at bay for 45 minutes. But they didn’t in this one, and the result was a last 25 minutes which felt more like a training session than the latter stages of a winner-takes-all cup tie. Exactly the way that Pep Guardiola will have wanted it.
And the Treble remains undoubtedly ‘on’. Real Madrid will be a huge challenge in the semi-finals of the Champions League. For all the squawking after Arsenal dropped another two points against Southampton, the Premier League absolutely isn’t won yet. And an FA Cup final against either Brighton or Manchester United can hardly be considered a gimme either. But they’re through with no injury worries and their unbeaten run looking as resilient as ever.
The Treble that they’re chasing is so vanishingly rare because it’s so difficult and there will be higher pressure games ahead than this, but their progress towards it seems utterly relentless.