Manchester City traveled to the Riverside Stadium looking to reach the Wembley semi-final in the FA Cup, which is arguably Pep’s best and most realistic chance of silverware this season. The City starting line up was a clear indication of the manager’s intent. With the exception of the goalkeeper, it was, in my opinion, the City strongest XI, injuries permitting. Pep has said he loves the FA Cup and he’d relish another trip to Wembley, having been twice before, once as a player and most recently the 2011 Champions League final with Barcelona.
City started so bright and when Silva scored in the opening 3 minutes, it seemed like Boro were either not up for the game, or maybe they were just stunned that City had actually come at them so early. The finish for the goal wasn’t the cleanest, but the build up and the chance creation were. Nine City players were involved in the lead up to the goal. The Boro defence was dragged across the box towards City’s left, this opened up so much space for Zabaleta on the opposite edge of the penalty area. Yaya Toure lift the ball over to him, Captain for the day, Zaba then played in a cross to Sterling who swung and missed, the ball fell nicely to Silva who put it in the back of the net. It was a bit of a scuffed effort by ‘Merlin’, but that’s not important. The goal felt deserved, if a goal can be deserved in so early in a game. It’s also the quickest goal City have scored in all competitions this season.
It was encouraging to see City start so bright, hopefully they’ll carry this attitude into the remaining fixtures of the season. On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned, Boro didn’t look like they were up for it, though Grant Leadbitter put in a ‘captain’s’ challenge on Sergio Agüero not long after the goal went in. It was cynical, but it also felt like it was purposeful and an effort by the skipper to wake Boro up. Another notable issue in the first half was that the pitch had obviously had a good water, because there were players slipping all over the place. Honestly, it was the slippiest pitch I’ve seen for a while.
City started to get a bit sloppy with their passing as the first half wore on and there followed a number of chances wasted. At one point, it started to feel like it was just going to be one of ‘those days’ for City. Leroy Sané miss hit a cross for what could have been a second for City. A cross from Silva on 33 minutes was another missed opportunity as the ball went through everyone. Seconds later, City were back in again. Silva played a ball out wide to Sterling, who crossed along ground to Sané. The German miss hit it and it bobbled into Guzan’s hands. Sané was looking a bit hot and cold at this point. However, a minute later he beat about four players with a dribble into the box, danced past the Boro defenders, in from the left along the byline to near post. His pass to Sterling could’ve given City a second, but for superb defending by Gibson to block the shot. When Sané gets going with the ball at his feet, he looks graceful and unstoppable, but the final ball is where he needs to improve.
Alvaro Negredo, ‘The Beast’, came on at 25 minutes to replace Rudy Gestede. The Beast got a good reception from the City fans, and if I’m honest, the thought of him facing off against Otamendi worried me. However, I’ve got to say, Otamendi surprisingly looked formidable in defence throughout the game. It’s baffled me how he has managed to get in the UEFA Champions League ‘Team of the Week’, so many times this season, as he’s been a liability on occasions. That said, he put in one of his best performances against Boro.
Boro started coming back into it, but that felt a lot like it was because City had allowed them to. City’s poor passing started a chain of Boro possession which lead to a dangerous Boro corner and “Bravo-Butterfingers” was bailed out by Zabaleta at the back post. The more the North East side started to come back into the game, the more it became apparent that City’s keepers really can’t kick ball out from goal a kick (bare with me); twice against Stoke and three times against Boro, the City keeper kicked the ball to one of the two centre halves, only for the kick needing to be retook. The scenarios is that the centre halves each line up next to the box for a choice of short pass, but for five time in two games, the ball doesn’t leave box before a player touches it. Five times in two games! It’s like taking five foul throws and it’s so poor to see at this level! Further to this, Bravo’s distribution hasn’t lived up to the praise Pep gives it, but even worse for Pep, Bravo’s decision making regarding his passing was very poor against Boro and it invited pressure. Pep has stated that Bravo’s biggest strength is his reading and distribution abilities, namely to justify his selection, but whilst at times it is better than Joe Hart’s, it’s still a long way off what is required.
Boro were leaving their foot in, but it seemed to take a while before a yellow card was shown. City fans might have felt that they were due a penalty when Sterling was tripped in box, I personally thought it looked tame and wasn’t much of a trip. That said, Leadbitter was in the thick of it again when he covered the ball like in rugby, in doing so he seemed to handball it about 3 times. I don’t remember much about rugby from school, but I think what he was doing was called “forming a rook”. Nothing doing though, referee Mike Dean waived play on. City were however given a free kick on 40 minutes. Fabio should’ve been be booked too, not for this particular infringement, but because was about the third or fourth on he’d done. The free kick was whipped in well by Kevin de Bruyne, Yaya Toure got a strong head to it, but too strong and chance went wide. Heading hasn’t been Yaya Toure’s strength over his career and he should’ve done better with this chance.
Leadbitter, again, was eventually booked for a poor challenge on Kevin de Bruyne, just before Half Time. It was a needless challenge and a deserved yellow card, he should really have been booked for a kick to Agüero at the begining of the game. It felt like Leadbitter was trying to be a leader with his forceful tackles, but he came across as a dirty b*****d and this view was reinforced thirty seconds later when he cynically kicked Yaya in the middle of the park – it was a nothing challenge. Almost a comical kick, some continental refs would give it as a second yellow. I think had Mike Dean been in a different frame of mind, he probably would’ve done too.
City started the second half like they finished the first – unpolished, and there was a missed opportunity early on. Almost a mirror of the goal. The ball came in from the right, Sterling was again in front of goal and miskicked it, it fell to Silva, but this time he couldn’t get his foot round it. It was his weak foot and he put it over the bar. Should’ve been a goal. The blues were unlucky again when another great chance went begging; a good cross from Sterling came after a good break led by Kevin de Bruyne. The ball was flicked by Agüero and had Guzan beat, but the ball hit post. Seconds later, City wasted another chance; again, it really felt like one of ‘those days’.
Both teams started to look frustrated; City with their wasted chances and Boro with City’s dominance. Boro’s tough tackling continued through the second half and there was a shocking tackle by City Academy graduate, and now Boro player, Adam Clayton on Raheem Sterling. The replays made it look as though it could have been a leg breaker and definitely should’ve been a red.
Opportunities kept coming for City, Leroy Sané made himself another chance, but it was stopped by good block by Gibson on the hour mark. Then on 63 minutes, David Silva’s effort was met with a nice save by Guzan. Seconds later Sané’s long range effort was kept out by Guzan. The keeper coped well with City’s pressure for the most part of the game.
What was I saying about Sané’s final ball letting him down? On 67 minutes, he delivered a perfect low cross from the left and Agüero slotted it in neatly. And best of all, Sergio looked like he was loving it.
With the chance of going to Wembley in sight, the celebration after the second goal and the way City carried on playing, showed they’re hungry as a team to win something this season. This was backed up by a long range shot from Agüero, which was parried by Guzan and Sterling tucked in the rebound. But linesman harshly gave it as off side. I don’t think it was. City looked hungry for more. In particular, so did Agüero. Guzan kept the score respectable for Boro, whilst City could’ve score 3 or 4 more. The 2-0 full time score was job done for City. I’m not a body language specialist, but the embrace by Agüero and Pep at the end tells me that they don’t hate each other…
Zaba and Kün played superb; Sané and Silva with craft and culture. Silva keeps purring on. He was easily man of the match and sorely missed in the first half against Stoke on Wednesday night. City will need him to keep up this form if the season is going to end on a high. The only trouble is, where do City go when Merlin leaves?