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Football can win the day in city of Manchester battles

The TV paymasters and their Premier League lackeys have done their best but the sense here this morning must be a somewhat exuberant one.

It is that they have failed, despite the most strenuous efforts, to kill off the FA Cup final as anything more than an obscure sideshow.

True, it is surrounded by a cluster of vital rival attractions, not least the possibility that Manchester United will be crowned champions even as Manchester City and Stoke City prepare to walk out at Wembley.

Yet there is also the possibility of superb redemption for the day that gave us the famous white police horse and the poetic apotheosis of Sir Stanley Matthews.

Also, there is the most serious challenge for some time to Arsene Wenger's declaration that winning the Cup would never again be more important than finishing fourth.

The Arsenal manager said that a few trophy-less years ago but if Manchester City can achieve today that which they crave most dearly - first piece of silver in 35 years - and the confirmation they are sufficiently grown up, as well as wealthy, to win something more than a desert windfall, the Wenger statement will never have looked more shallow.

Especially, you have to believe, just a week after Stoke broke his Arsenal apart while providing much evidence that winning something major - in their case a five-goal dismantling of Bolton Wanderers in the Wembley semi-final - can create a habit of mind that facilitates winning, one that certainly might have helped Arsenal in their most shocking denouement of recent years, the defeat by Birmingham City in the League Cup final.

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If you think today's old affair with Cup-final day is a sadly diminished remnant, if you believe the stakes are so much higher at Ewood Park where the champions-elect are the visitors, you might just check out the need for the transplanting of a little imagination.

At the moment Manchester City are guaranteed only a place in the Champions League qualifying round, something which will look much less of an endorsement of the years of massive spending if they cannot get the better of fighting Stoke, whose place so much lower down the food chain has done nothing to curb their belief they have a place not too far from the top of English football.

If someone like the old City hero Bert Trautmann, an old war hero in the truest sense, is scared of Stoke, manager Tony Pulis might not want to look too much further for some validation of his work and ambition.

His rival Roberto Mancini, given his habits of mind, probably shares the view of another old City man, Mike Summerbee, who was confiding this week that he will be mightily relieved to see a City victory.

"Stoke are a hard, well organised team capable of more football than many believe, " said Summerbee, "and I feel they are going to give us one of the big tests of our season.

"It is a game we need to win before moving on."

It is also the kind of match that should commend itself to the football nation: a collision with the potential to reveal the growth, or not, of the world's richest football club and the capacity of another team, with less bounteous resources, to play to the limits impressively drawn by their coach.

In the end-of-season clutter this is a prospect that surely carries its own distinction.

City have players who can turn Wembley into their personal stage, and in the case of Mario Ballotelli, another casting couch for a re-make of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Carlos Tevez, with fitness permitting, will bring his strutting self-belief.

Last time out here, Yaya Toure produced genuine hauteur when he swept home the goal that defeated United in the semi-final.

David Silva could make beautiful patterns in a back alley; at Wembley he has the chance to do something quite memorable.

Stoke have more than the long throw rituals of Rory Delap, something their driving, craftsman midfielder Glenn Whelan was keen to point out earlier this week when he reminded us that all three of the goals that further embarrassed Arsenal came from open play.

It means that today we have the perfect example of how the FA Cup final still has the ability to meet all the needs of two teams.

Yes, we have known for some time, it has become the cup of convenience, something to be embraced, or disregarded, depending on circumstances.

However, in this most cynical of ages a real Cup final has struggled into the spring light.

The suspicion is that Stoke might but still more compelling is a third possibility. It is that for once on this of days football has again a decent chance of winning.

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