Claudio Bravo deserves Carabao Cup final chance at redemption for City
When Manchester City headed to Wembley for the League Cup final in 2016, the fans feared the worst. Manager Manuel Pellegrini had already said in the build-up that second-choice goalkeeper Willy Caballero would start the match and, up to that point in his career at the Etihad, the Argentine had flattered to deceive.
In fact, his stock was rock bottom. Seven days earlier, he had been part of a heavily-rotated City team that were battered 5-1 in the FA Cup at Chelsea. Pellegrini threw his lambs to the slaughter that afternoon, sacrificing the competition in order to go full strength in what would turn out to be a 3-1 win in Ukraine at Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League three days later.
He didn't need to play as many youngsters as he did at Stamford Bridge, but he was making a point about fixture congestion when that tie was moved to the Sunday slot for TV. Some argued he was cutting his nose off to spite his face -- but he was redeemed when the team bagged three away goals in midweek and then lifted the League Cup the following weekend.
Ahead of the 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Wembley, debate raged over whether Caballero should be given the opportunity to play. He'd played every other match in the competition to that point and so many felt he deserved his chance. Equally, though, he'd never looked comfortable between the posts, reaching his nadir when he actually managed to dive out of the way of a couple of efforts in that FA Cup exit at Chelsea.
The fans were nervous when they saw his name on the teamsheet, but by the end of the day he had proven his worth. Caballero had little to do in the 120 minutes of play, but he pulled off three excellent saves in the penalty shootout, which City went on to win 3-1.
The team recognised his contributions, too. When Yaya Toure slotted home the decisive kick, the huddle of players on the halfway line charged straight for the goalkeeper and not the winning penalty-taker.
Now Caballero has moved on, to Chelsea, there seems little point in having the debate this season. Pep Guardiola has already confirmed that his No. 2 Claudio Bravo will be his goalkeeper for Sunday's trip to Wembley to face Arsenal, having played in all of the previous rounds of the competition. The fans may not like it and they may not have confidence in his goalkeeping, but it's the right thing to do -- if it ends up with the Chilean making a costly error, then so be it.
Ahead of the 2016 final, Caballero wasn't trusted. But Bravo has taken that feeling to a whole new level. During his first campaign at the Etihad, there was a point where there were ironic cheers from City fans when the goalkeeper caught the ball. Of course, the criticism of him was absolutely fair, but jeering his saves did take it too far.
With Ederson brought in to solve the problem in the summer, Bravo has been relegated to back-up. It meant Guardiola gave him chances to play in the domestic cup competitions and he repaid that by helping City to Sunday's final.
To drop him in favour of his first-choice keeper at this stage would be unfair, and could shatter what little confidence he has left. What would then happen if Ederson picked up an injury and the Chilean needed to deputise for the latter stages of the season?
On top of that, without Bravo, City may have crashed out of the competition at an earlier stage. He pulled off three excellent one-on-one saves in a 0-0 draw with Wolves in October -- one with just seconds of normal time remaining ensured his team didn't lose to a last-minute strike.
He went on to save two penalties in the shootout, which City won 4-1.
Bravo was also the difference in the next round. Following the 1-1 draw with Leicester, he stopped Riyad Mahrez's spot-kick in the shootout and helped to secure a 4-3 win on penalties to get his team to the semifinals.
Of course, few would suggest this will restore confidence in him fully. He still looks nervy in possession, uncomfortable facing decent shots, and he still struggles to command his area. However, it is at least some sign that he's settling down from a disastrous first season at the club.
In 2016, the League Cup final saw the redemption of one much-ridiculed City goalkeeper. If Bravo can put in a good display and stand up strong to whatever Arsenal throw at him, then the 2018 final could see a similar story.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney