Black Cats to push City
Ben Coley previews the Capital One Cup final and fancies Sunderland to pose problems for much-fancied Manchester City.
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Manchester City are understandably strong favourites to beat Sunderland in the Capital One Cup final, and of course they should oblige for a first piece of silverware under the tutelage of Manuel Pellegrini.
While exposed tactically by Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and ruthlessly pounced upon by an opportunistic Barcelona side, City at their best remain one of Europe's strongest sides and their attacking options are such that landslide wins are always possible.
It's that which makes them a difficult lot to get right and that applies to this game, too. Clearly, if City turn up and start quickly they could cover any handicap you can find a price for and if Sergio Aguero makes a surprise return the prospects of them doing so increase markedly.
But for all the 5-0 wins over the likes of Blackburn and Wigan, we have to acknowledge how close they came to losing to the former in their FA Cup clash at Ewood Park, as well as their 0-0 draw at Norwich and indeed a 1-0 defeat to Sunday's rivals at the Stadium of Light.
Which will turn up here is hard to know but you'd like to think that last year's FA Cup final defeat to Wigan will leave City's survivors desperate to make the most of this first return to Wembley, while the very realistic prospect of a domestic treble should offer further incentive for them if needed.
Sunderland, for their part, deserve great credit for reaching the final. That isn't meant to sound patronising, more to acknowledge that they were not expected to beat Chelsea and they were not expected to beat Manchester United. You can probably throw Southampton into that list, too.
Gus Poyet's side are playing for history of their own. A domestic cup double, while improbable, at least remains possible although you might argue it's more likely they'll add their name to the list of sides to be relegated during a season which saw them visit Wembley for a cup final.
In Sunderland's favour is a fine recent record against City. Remarkably, that 1-0 home win back in November was their fourth in succession in the fixture and while home comforts are missing here, such results offer proof that Sunderland have it within them to contain and frustrate the favourites, which appears their best chance of success.
It's also worth noting how competitive League Cup finals tend to be, at least in terms of the score. Last year's 5-0 win for Swansea over League 2 opponents aside, only Manchester United's 4-0 thumping of Wigan in 2006 saw the favourites cover even the minimum one-goal handicap since Aston Villa beat Leeds 3-0 in 1996.
It's hard to know why this is, particularly as finals have switched from old Wembley, to the Millennium Stadium and back, now, to new Wembley and its much-maligned playing surface.
Perhaps it's the pressure of expectation that got to Arsenal when they lost to Birmingham, or that saw Liverpool require penalties to see off Cardiff.
Equally plausible is the idea that well-drilled, determined teams who see this is a free shot at glory can prove more difficult to beat than more skilled opponents who believe their quality entitles them to play with a greater degree of freedom, the sort that City themselves have so ruthlessly exposed in thumping Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United this season.
Whatever the case, the numbers support backing Sunderland +1 at 10/11 and that's the place to start if you're expecting another cup final which lacks in goalmouth action. You are betting against arguably the most potent attack in England, but there's plenty of hard evidence which says we might not see the best of them here.
Instead, though, I'd rather just chance Sunderland being able to nick a goal in what I do expect will be a relatively comfortable victory for City.
This bet isn't far away from the handicap option given that a 1-0 City win seems unlikely, and we've seen so often this season that the freedom Pellegrini has granted his side can cost them at the back from time to time.
Sunderland are by no means prolific but their record against the Premier League's best sides offers hope.
Even in being outclassed they managed a goal at Arsenal last week, as they had in the reverse fixture, while they scored five in two games against Chelsea, four in three clashes with Manchester United as well as once against City, Liverpool, Everton and Spurs. It may defy logic, but their only failures to score this season have come against sides such as Hull, Aston Villa and Norwich.
With this in mind, prices upwards of 2/1 about Sunderland finding the net in defeat look very fair and offer plenty of appeal, particularly as any bet on goalscorer markets will depend so much on the fitness of Aguero and, indeed, whether Pellegrini sees fit to chance him regardless.
Verdict: Manchester City 3 Sunderland 1