Manchester City's Pep Guardiola and Aston Villa's Dean Smith are managers who are driven by their love of football, but Kevin Hatchard can only see one winner...
"Manchester City aren't quite shock-proof, but their track record in the League Cup shows just how seriously Pep Guardiola takes every match."
Relentless Guardiola wins the games, and the trophies follow
Although he denies it, Pep Guardiola's failure to win the Champions League since 2011 seems to pain him greatly, not least because he sees that competition as the zenith of football. The superb 2-1 win at Real Madrid this week underlined City's UCL-winning credentials, but his unusual team selection contributed to the idea that the Catalan schemer overthinks the big knockout games, diverging from the winning formula that until this season has dominated English football.
Although he has more than a sprinkling of stardust, Guardiola doesn't ignore the domestic cup competitions. If anything, he seems to relish them. At Barcelona he won the Copa del Rey twice, he lifted Germany's DFB Cup in two of his three seasons at Bayern Munich, and with Manchester City he has won the League Cup twice and has tasted glory in the FA Cup.
Of course, having incredible squads doesn't do Guardiola's cause any harm, but City's success in the League Cup (they are in the final for the third season in a row) is a product of his exhaustive approach to every game. Even for pre-season friendlies, Guardiola will watch hours of footage and obsess over the smallest of details. He admits this, and says that when he was a player, he felt more confident if he had plenty of information about the opposition. From Carl Zeiss Jena to Dortmund, from Ceuta to Real Madrid and from Burton Albion to Liverpool, Pep's players will always have the lowdown on the opposition.
That seriousness transmits to his players. City aren't quite shock-proof (they lost to Wigan in the FA Cup in 2018) but they haven't lost a meaningful League Cup match since 2016, and in three years at Bayern, Guardiola only lost one DFB Cup match, and that was on penalties to Borussia Dortmund. It's too easy to dismiss that success as being born of having squads packed with talent - Liverpool are yet to win a domestic trophy under Jurgen Klopp, while Manchester United have suffered relatively recent League Cup exits against Bristol City and Derby County.
Guardiola can become the first manager since Liverpool legend Bob Paisley to win three successive League Cups, and a strong side is expected. Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Fernandinho were all left out of the starting XI in Madrid, although the latter two came on to great effect.
Villa man Smith chasing Wembley glory
Aston Villa fans know how quickly the joy of Wembley can turn to ashes in their mouths. In 2015, Tim Sherwood took the team to the home of English football, only for them to be smacked 4-0 by Arsenal. Villa were relegated the following season. In the last 23 years, Middlesbrough, Portsmouth and Wigan have all reached the FA Cup final, only to slide out of the Premier League in the same campaign.
It's easy for a manager to say that a cup run won't distract his players, but it's surely no coincidence that Villa's most bloodless and inept display of the season came last weekend, as they lost 2-0 at Southampton. Perhaps some players had Wembley on their minds, and didn't go into challenges quite as hard. The irony is that such was the anger of embattled manager Dean Smith, many Villa players that day will have played their way out of the cup final team.
Smith is a West Midlands man who has got to the top the hard way. His Walsall and Brentford teams played attractive football, and he deserved the Villa chance when it came along. Smith is the son of a toolmaker from Aston, and he stood on the Holte End as a schoolboy, bellowing his support. He was part of the parade that saw the European Cup-winning team of 1982 acclaimed in Birmingham.
Leading his beloved Villa out at Wembley will be a dream come true for Smith, but he's pragmatic enough to know that City could turn that into a nightmare. The Premier League champions have already thrashed Villa 3-0 and 6-1 in the top flight this term, and given that they hammered Watford 6-0 in last season's FA Cup final, Smith and his fellow Villa supporters can be forgiven for harbouring a sense of trepidation.
I share that trepidation on their behalf, and I'll back and Manchester City/Over 3.5 Goals double on the Sportsbook at 2.13.