No one really knows whether the Manchester City right-back should have been sent off – all we have are opinions
It seemed fitting that this FA Cup semi-final should end with Manchester City’s players keeping the ball in a kind of ad hoc rondo deep in the Brighton half, 1-0 up and just doing enough, their opponents held at arm’s length like an outmatched little brother, fists windmilling uselessly.
It seemed fitting the victory tune on the Wembley PA should be Wonderwall, with its downbeat, ruminative opening chords. It seemed fitting also that it should be Brighton’s fans who cheered loudest in those moments, the entire end on its feet applauding the players for reaching this far, for an energetic performance, and for the gift of one of those fun, frisky Saturdays where football becomes a carefree thing once again, even in defeat.
Still, though, when they come to write the annals of great FA Cup semi-finals, this room temperature 1-0 victory might just merit a footnote to a footnote. And only if it was a footnote about the way these occasions can demonstrate more about the way the game has stratified at the top, than any real show of life left in the old competition.
Instead City won this game the way Floyd Mayweather won a fair few of his title fights, easing along one pace ahead, preserving energy for the next time and the next time but one. At the end of which there were two points worth taking.
The first involved VAR, or rather the usual interminable debate over its application. With 32 minutes gone Kyle Walker shepherded the ball out near the City goal. Alireza Jahanbakhsh seemed to stand on his leg as he fell over. Walker sprang up and pressed his head to the Brighton man’s forehead in that strange, oddly sensual footballer’s embrace.
As ever the question here, with heads docked, was which of these nuzzling stags would make the mistake of applying a fatal forward shove. This time it was Walker, although it was more a kind of downward stroke with the brow, a cheese grater effect.
At which point, enter football’s great dunderheaded experiment with the idea that certainty can be introduced to a game of marginal calls. From his bunker Paul Tierney, hot foot up the motorway from Southampton on Friday night, judged it to be a yellow card.
There will be those who feel Walker should have been sent off. In isolation it looked like an outlawed duck of the head, a strict liability offence in freeze frame, never mind the provocation. But then, who really knows? The answer, of course, is: no one knows. There is nothing to know. There is no objective truth, no definitive answer. Other than the fact poorly applied VAR is the same as poor refereeing, only slightly worse because it takes longer. All we really have are opinions, and endless wearying debate.
The second point from this semi-final was what it said about the Cup itself, and about City’s trajectory. Pep Guardiola had picked something close to a full-strength team here, with Fernandinho’s spot on the bench the only concession to fatigue. And even before Gabriel Jesus scored the only goal of the game in the fourth minute, there was already a sense of the day sliding inexorably one way.
Kevin De Bruyne had already spanked one hard flat cross into the Brighton goalmouth from the right. The second one was perfection. A cross as good as this is often described as “an invitation to score”. This wasn’t so much an invitation as a personalised vellum-bound VIP ticket, a series of increasingly desperate and needy follow-up letters, a banner flown above the ground. Jesus took the hint first time and nodded the ball past Mathew Ryan, an assured finish backed by the usual wonderful movement in tight spaces.
Brighton ran hard and defended with discipline. They might have equalised early in the second half. Either side of the break there was a feeling of one team, City, trying not to give too much of itself away; and another feeling that slackness and pushing into it, with that underdog scent faintly in their nostrils.
And yet for all the closeness of the final score, Brighton were never really that close. The Cup was once a great leveller. It isn’t any more. Nothing is a great leveller. There isn’t enough levelling available to breach the gap between a team that has been built with what the budget allows, and one that has been built with no limit to the possibilities, no break on the imagination.
Guardiola was jubilant at the end, double-punching the air as his team cleared a late attack and broke upfield to run down the clock. From here City will roll on, a step closer to the most minor part left in that hypothetical quadruple, but with their eyes turned to wider horizons than this.