The great Manchester City machine rolls on. Pep Guardiola’s side showed up in Cardiff this afternoon, chasing a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup, facing as direct, physical and difficult a side as they will face all season.
But City stood up for themselves, imposed their football on the occasion, took a 2-0 first half lead and never let go. This was a huge day for Neil Warnock’s side, and Cardiff set a club-record attendance over 32,339. But their players could make very little impression on the match beyond some excessive tackling. One bad foul by Joe Bennett Leroy Sane meant the German winger could not play in the second half. Bennett should have been sent off but had to foul Brahim Diaz before he was.
That aside, it was all very straightforward for City, far more so than Tottenham’s outing down the road at Newport County yesterday evening. Even more so than Manchester City’s last trip to a Championship side, when they went to Bristol City on Tuesday night, won 3-2 on the night and confirmed their place in the EFL Cup final.
FA Cup fourth round in pictures
That is at the end of next month but before then, after City go to Switzerland to play FC Basel, City will have their FA Cup fifth round tie. These do not all feel like big games yet but they are all crucial little steps towards the four trophies City are hunting. They may not get there but as we head into February they are still in the hunt.
With Pep Guardiola the evolution never stops and so Manchester City came to Cardiff with a new approach they had not used before this season: Bernardo Silva as a false nine, flanked by Sane and Raheem Sterling on the wings. It meant they could give Sergio Aguero a brief rest, and give Cardiff a new problem to solve.
With Silva drifting around the Cardiff defence had no idea who to pick up, which only made it harder when City’s runners arrived into the box. Like when, just five minutes in, Silva found Danilo, who crossed to Ilkay Gundogan, whose shot was saved by Neil Etheridge.
Faced with the whirr of purple shirts, Cardiff’s only response was to kick out. But that cost them when De Bruyne scored the first goal from a free-kick. Gundogan had been clattered by Joe Ralls on the edge of the box. After a lengthy stoppage, De Bruyne tapped the free-kick under the wall and into the bottom corner of the net.
That was 1-0 and it was only some curious officiating that stopped Manchester City from doubling their lead soon after. De Bruyne found Silva who shuffled inside Ralls and hit an early shot into the near top corner of the net. Silva’s quick thinking was a surprise, but even more surprising was the flag disallowing it for offside. Sane was ruled to have been both interfering in play and in an offside position. Neither of which was apparent on the replays.
Guardiola was incensed but soon enough City did have their second. This time Silva popped up on the left wing and he whipped in a perfect left-footed cross, over the head of Bruno Ecuele Manga. Sterling was perfectly there, contorting his body to head it down, into the ground and into the net, for his 19th goal of the season.
That was City in the hat for the fifth round, more or less, but they could not relax from there. Sane was cut down by Bennett, fortunate to stay on the pitch, and that meant Aguero had to come on for the second half. Manchester City were happy enough to pass the ball between themselves after that, especially with Cardiff reluctant to press them too high up the pitch.
Cardiff never looked like getting seriously back into the game. Their main threat to City had come in the first half, from long balls and second balls. Junior Hoillet had nearly scored from distance early on, when Bravo spilled the ball onto the line but not over it. Then, in the second half, Kenneth Zohore forced another save from Bravo and Hoillet fizzed one over from distance.
It was Manchester City who looked more like scoring another, not that they needed to. Twice Sterling raced in behind the Cardiff defence but both times Sean Morrison made up enough ground to tackle him. Guardiola threw on Diaz at the very end, but when he was scythed down by Bennett, who was sent off, he might have regretted it. But City went through.