Pep Guardiola says Manchester City need to “learn to be more clinical” after they made difficult work of reaching their third successive Carabao Cup final.
Guardiola’s side will face Aston Villa at Wembley on 1 March – despite losing the second leg of their semi-final against Manchester United, advancing 3-2 on aggregate.
Leading 3-1 from the first leg at Old Trafford, the holders pushed forward in search of a goal to put the tie to bed but could find no way past an inspired David de Gea.
Instead, United put things back in the balance before half-time when Nemanja Matic put them ahead on the night with their first effort at goal.
United had created nothing in open play but City could only half-clear Fred’s free-kick and Matic swept a powerful first-time strike past Claudio Bravo.
“Over 180 minutes we were better than United,” said Guardiola. “We created chances to score a lot of goals and didn’t convert. We need to learn to be more clinical.
“We played a side with incredible physicality. The goal was from a set-piece. The first time they shot on target. In both games, we were better.”
City tried to respond after going behind – and De Gea, who had brilliantly denied Sergio Aguero and Riyad Mahrez in the opening minutes, was finally beaten when Raheem Sterling turned in Kevin de Bruyne’s cross, but the flag was already up for offside.
The scoreline made for an anxious atmosphere at Etihad Stadium at the break and more United chances followed in the second half, with Harry Maguire heading over and Anthony Martial bringing a low save from Bravo but ultimately the visitors were unable to score a second.
Sterling, still without a goal in 2020, had a chance to settle his side’s nerves and restore their two-goal cushion when he ran clear in the second half but he dallied and eventually skied his shot.
More wastefulness from the home side followed, notably when the ball broke to substitute David Silva in front of goal but he chose to square to Ilkay Gundogan rather than shoot.
It was only when Matic was sent off for his second booking with 14 minutes remaining that City regained any sort of control of the game, and they were able to see out the remainder without any further scares to ensure their progress.
Guardiola’s side are into the final for a third successive year and will go for their seventh EFL Cup win when they face Villa in the final at Wembley on 1 March.
Only Liverpool, who have won it eight times, have a better record in the competition.
Room for improvement for careless City
Guardiola wants his side to use their domestic cup games as preparation for next month’s Champions League tie with Real Madrid and, on this evidence, there is plenty of room for improvement.
It was not just in front of goal where City were careless – after falling behind to Matic’s goal, they frequently gave away possession too.
True, they restricted United to only a handful of further chances and never really seemed in danger of overall defeat, but considering they were 3-0 up before half-time in the first leg, this was an underwhelming way to progress.
Guardiola, who went with a strikerless 4-4-2 formation at Old Trafford, used a 3-2-4-1 formation here, and it gave his side the upper hand early on.
But the longer they went without taking their chances, the more hope United had – especially when Matic scored.
Of the opportunities City wasted, Sterling’s was the worst – and the England forward surely needs to find the net soon to boost his faltering confidence in front of goal.
He had time to pick his spot when De Bruyne sent him galloping clear but chose to cut inside past Victor Lindelof and De Gea, and United had several defenders back when he finally blazed his shot over.
Plenty of positives for Man Utd
United kept the tie alive until the very end, when Fred fired a free-kick into the City wall from a dangerous position, but still had the consolation of being able to claim their second win at Etihad Stadium this season.
Their performance on this occasion did not repeat the attacking verve of their Premier League victory here before Christmas, when they repeatedly ripped apart City’s defence on the counter-attack, but there were still plenty of positives for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, other than the result on the night.
The imminent arrival of Bruno Fernandes will bolster Solskjaer’s midfield options but, before his red card, Matic showed he still has plenty to offer in that department.
As well as his fine finish, the Serb made several timely interceptions and, along with Fred, helped United stem the tide after City’s fast start.
De Gea, too, has received plenty of criticism lately – so deserves to take credit here for helping United become only the second side to stop City scoring at Etihad Stadium this season.
His instinctive stop from Aguero’s header was his best save of the night, but he was equal to whatever City could throw at him.
Man of the match – David de Gea (Manchester United)
‘It was never a sending off. An absolute joke’ – what they said
Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan: “We should have scored early in the first half. We should have scored at least one or two goals today but it wasn’t to be.
“The manager said before the game this is now an experience, we have to survive and overcome. I think we can improve. It is a learning process.”
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: “I am so proud of these players. They have beaten City twice at their ground. They have come so far these players. They have given me absolutely everything.
“We have come a long way. Even though we did not create too many clear cut chances, we pressed them back. It pleased me.
“Of course it is hard to come here and score a goal with 11, never mind 10. It was never a sending off. An absolute joke. How many times did they foul us?”