LONDON — Four days after qualifying for the Champions League for the first time, Manchester City can give its success-starved fans more reason to cheer by beating Stoke in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium on Saturday to end a 35-year trophy drought.
An investment of more than $1 billion (C$1.6 billion) on players since the 2008 takeover of Man City by Abu Dhabi businessman Sheikh Mansour is starting to pay dividends, with the northwest side securing a first top-four finish in the Premier League by defeating Tottenham 1-0 on Tuesday.
Standing in the way of the team’s first trophy since 1976 is mid-table Premier League rival Stoke, the second oldest club in England which is in prime form heading into its first FA Cup final.
“Saturday will be a very, very hard game,” City manager Roberto Mancini said. “Stoke are a difficult team and it is important that we recover very well in the next two days.
“If we think it will be an easy game, that will be a big mistake. If we concentrate, maybe we can win.”
Stoke, whose famous players down the years have included former England stars Stanley Matthews and Gordon Banks, has won only one trophy in its 148-year history — the League Cup in 1972 following a 2-1 victory over Chelsea.
But the team nicknamed the Potters has established itself as a topflight club since gaining promotion in 2008. Its physical and direct approach has earned the side few plaudits but makes it tough to beat, going into the final on a five-match unbeaten run that includes a 3-1 win over Arsenal on Sunday.
“If you had said to me at the beginning of the season we would be in the final, I would be doing somersaults. We will just make sure we enjoy it,” Stoke manager Tony Pulis said.
City heads to Wembley as the clear favourite, armed with a star-studded squad including players like Argentina striker Carlos Tevez, Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure and Spain winger David Silva.
This season’s squad is stronger in depth than in previous years, allowing Mancini to rotate players throughout the campaign to help the team compete on more fronts.
City reached the last 16 of the Europa League before being eliminated by Dynamo Kyiv, but has qualified for the Champions League with two matches to spare in the Premier League. A first trophy since a League Cup victory over Newcastle in 1976 now rests with the FA Cup.
“Last year we lost in the semifinal of the League Cup against Manchester United; this year, we played them in the semifinal of the FA Cup and beat them,” centre back Vincent Kompany said. “It was the same with Tottenham and the top four.
“It is going forward for us. We can build on it for next season and challenge for the (Premier League) title.”
Tevez, the team’s attacking inspiration, had been in doubt ahead of the match after a hamstring injury caused him to miss the last month. He returned against Spurs as a late second-half substitute, but may still struggle to make the starting lineup on Saturday.
“I don’t think Carlos can be ready 100 per cent because he played 15 minutes and did only one week’s training with the team,” Mancini said.
If Tevez doesn’t start, Mancini will have to decide between Italy forward Mario Balotelli and Bosnia striker Edin Dzeko, who joined for 27 million pounds (C$42.4 million) in January, to lead the line at the weekend.
Stoke was once accused by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger of playing like a rugby team because of its physicality, but the team has mixed long-ball tactics with some neat passing and spectacular long-range goals in recent games.
Stoke defeated Bolton 5-0 in the semifinal at Wembley in a thoroughly impressive display that will have made some pundits eat their words.
“You would not of dreamed of it a few years ago — Stoke in an FA Cup final, perhaps finishing in the top 10 of the Premier League and being in Europe. It is a bit special,” Pulis said.
With City sealing a top-four place, Stoke is now assured of a place in next season’s Europa League, whatever the result on Saturday.
Winger Matthew Etherington (hamstring) and former Germany defender Robert Huth (knee) are injury doubts for Stoke. The Potters feature former Canadian under-20 goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, who now plays internationally for Bosnia and Herzegovina.