With Manchester City lifting the League Cup for the first time in 38 years on Sunday, and with the side having to come from behind against a hard-working Sunderland, the plaudits for the victory will -- quite rightly -- fall on the shoulders of Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri. After all, it was their stunning strikes in one brilliant minute that got their team moving and into the lead, early in the second half.
It’s safe to say the match won’t go down as the Blues’ best performance this season, however, one man had a huge impact while only appearing on the Wembley turf for a mere 17 minutes: Javi Garcia. Throughout the final, there was always the feeling that Sunderland might expose City’s defensive fragility (as they had done inside 10 minutes), with balls in and around the box eventually being dealt with -- albeit, at times, only just. At 1-0 down, a second Sunderland goal would possibly have changed the outcome of the match, while at 2-1 it could have swung the momentum into the Black Cats’ favour.
Gus Poyet, wary of City’s attacking threat, had started with a variant of 4-5-1 (more in the region of 4-2-3-1, but it was fairly flexible) and his side were outnumbering the Blues in midfield. This meant that, as City tried to pass their way through, they were struggling for space -- as has been the case in recent weeks in other competitions, notably against Stoke in the last Premier League match. It meant that, while Sunderland were set up to counter, they caused the Blues plenty of problems. In short, there were a few hairy moments requiring last-ditch tackles or last-second flicks to clear.
Now, throughout his first season at City, the fans’ knives were out, sharpened and poised for Garcia, following a series of -- let’s be kind, here -- underwhelming performances. The Spaniard took a long time to settle, looking uncomfortable on the ball and seeming far too slow to be able to cope with the pace of the Premier League. Meanwhile, fans would quite often wince when he was to make an appearance in the Champions League. (Though, as City fans will explain, it’s not all down to pace --- Gareth Barry was a key part of the Blues’ success since joining the club in 2009 and he had the acceleration of a tractor.)
At the beginning of the current season, new manager Manuel Pellegrini faced a problem at centre-back. With injuries to Vincent Kompany, Matija Nastasic and new signing Martin Demichelis, the Chilean asked the defensive midfielder to fill in and do a job in the back four. While the Blues did keep a couple of clean sheets with Garcia in defence, they did look about as wobbly as a plate of jelly on top of a telegraph pole in a wind tunnel.
The thing is, it’s very difficult for somebody to shake the “liability” tag once it’s been applied -- especially when it’s stuck to a man whose responsibilities are defensive. Such is their job that the good stuff rarely sticks in the memory -- spectacular goals, like those by Toure and Nasri in Sunday’s match, stay with fans, but solid passing, excellent reading of the game, deft interceptions and all-round secure play is easily missed.
Having been scapegoated, there will still be a number of fans who decry Pellegrini’s usage of the Spanish midfielder -- still thinking back to those mistakes made in the first six months of his time in Manchester. But that man is long gone, replaced by a Garcia who is brimming with confidence and has a huge part to play in the final months of the season.
There were similarities between the League Cup final of 2014 and the FA Cup final of 2011 in this regard; City, victorious in both, were under pressure and leading by one goal with minutes to go. With Stoke piling the ball into the box three years ago, Roberto Mancini introduced Patrick Vieira to calm his team. With Sunderland pressing for an equaliser, Pellegrini did the same with Garcia. There was similar pressure on each game for the managers: For the Italian, the club hadn’t lifted a trophy in 35 years; while, for the Chilean, he’d not lifted a major cup since he’d begun coaching in Europe.
When the Blues had their little Premier League wobble (which turned out to be a defeat to Chelsea and a draw with Norwich), fans and pundits alike put a huge part of the poor performances down to the loss of Fernandinho to injury. It was undoubtedly a factor, but only because it was in conjunction with the absence of Garcia -- was who also on the treatment table.
That showed in the two Chelsea matches, 12 days apart. For Jose Mourinho’s second visit to the Etihad, Garcia was head and shoulders above anybody else on the pitch and it was his influence that meant the Stamford Bridge outfit were unable to even test Costel Pantilimon with a single shot on target.
From the 77th minute of the League Cup final, when Pellegrini swapped David Silva for his international teammate, there were still fans inside the national stadium who were uneasy at the sight of Garcia joining the action. Instead, leading by a narrow margin and under some pressure, the City end of the stadium should have been feeling confident about the final 13 minutes (plus stoppage time) -- because with the midfielder’s protection the Blues were in safe hands.
Garcia is no longer a man who looks out of his depth. He’s a very useful member of the City squad who will be a key part in how many trophies the Blues lift this season -- whether it’s because he’s come on the shore up a delicate lead or whether it’s because he’s started in order to control the middle and release Yaya Toure.
The scapegoat tag he earned in his early days in blue should be well and truly shed.