Saturday 24 August 2019

City survive off-day to ease into Cup final

Manchester City 1 Brighton 0

Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus celebrates scoring his side's winning goal. Photo: Jon Super/Reuters
Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus celebrates scoring his side's winning goal. Photo: Jon Super/Reuters

Daniel Taylor

By the standards they set themselves these days, this was a slightly strange way for Manchester City to tick off the latest assignment in a season that has all sorts of possibilities open for Pep Guardiola's team.

The quadruple? Guardiola will always play down that kind of talk. Yet City already have one trophy in the bag; their latest victory puts them in the final of the FA Cup; they are two points off the top of the Premier League table with a game in hand; and they play the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday against a Spurs team that is 16 points below them in the league.

But City will have to play with far more authority than they managed here. When was the last time, for instance, City managed only four shots on target against any opponent? Raheem Sterling, for one, can shimmer with more menace. The official man of the match was given to Anthony Knockaert and there were a few other Brighton players, notably Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk, who had their own credentials.

Ultimately, though, it did not matter greatly and City can probably be excused for a slight off-day. They still found a way, that's what really matters. The quadruple is still on and nobody could say it was an undeserved victory. Even on a day when they did not reach their usual heights, the imbalance of talent was simply too great between the league champions and the side in 16th position.

Manchester City's Aymeric Laporte (second left) clears the ball off the line from Brighton's Glenn Murray (centre) during the FA Cup semi final match at Wembley . Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Manchester City's Aymeric Laporte (second left) clears the ball off the line from Brighton's Glenn Murray (centre) during the FA Cup semi final match at Wembley . Photo: Nick Potts/PA

There was a reason why some bookies were rating the chances of an upset at 30/1, and that disparity quickly became clear when Kevin de Bruyne swung such an elegant pass into the six-yard area it would have been ungrateful in the extreme for Gabriel Jesus to pass up the chance to open the scoring.

That was City's 20th goal in the competition; there is only one other team who have reached that figure in the last seven years. Chelsea's Cup-winning side of 2012 did it over seven games. This was City's fifth tie of an obliging run that has also featured games against Rotherham, Burnley, Newport and Swansea. It was a beautifully constructed goal culminating in a diving header from Jesus to convert a knee-high cross, and City still had 87 minutes, plus stoppages, to go looking for more.

Not that Guardiola's team had everything their own way during that period. There was an occasional carelessness to their passing, but they had long spells when the possession count was over 75c per cent in their favour and, when it came to the game's controversy, perhaps it could also be argued the luck was on their side, too.

Kyle Walker was certainly pushing his luck when he took offence at a 32nd-minute challenge from Alireza Jahanbakhsh and squared up to the Iranian, taking the argument so far that referee Anthony Taylor held up play to see whether the VAR officials considered it a red-card offence. Walker was entitled to be irritated because, as he was shepherding the ball out of play, Jahanbakhsh had come in from behind and kneed him in the back of the leg. As they collided and went to ground, the Brighton player's studs landed on the back of Walker's left thigh. Was it accidental? Probably, but Walker might not have known that.

What is beyond dispute is that Walker lost his temper. The two players locked antlers like rival stags before Walker brought down his forehead with enough aggression to merit the involvement of VAR. What probably saved him was that it was not a forward motion, more forehead to nose. Ederson, City's goalkeeper, stopped Jahanbakhsh from prolonging the argument and the decision to issue Walker with only a yellow card was probably right.

Walker also took a bang in the first half that led to him being replaced by Danilo at the interval. De Bruyne followed him off in the 65th minute, with Fernandinho added to midfield, and that perhaps summed up City's inability to build on their early lead. De Bruyne's delivery for the goal was a reminder that there are times in football when the best part of a goal is not the finish, but the creation. After that, however, the Belgian did not find it so easy to find space for those precision passes.

Brighton's Alireza Jahanbakhsh (left) fouls Manchester City's Kyle Walker during the match. Photo: John Walton/PA
Brighton's Alireza Jahanbakhsh (left) fouls Manchester City's Kyle Walker during the match. Photo: John Walton/PA

With only one goal in it, there was also the possibility that Brighton could still snatch something. Their best chance was a header from Duffy but the ball was hacked away and, over the course of the match, there were only fleeting moments when it seemed as though Ederson might be vulnerable.

Manchester City's David Silva (left) and Brighton's Dale Stephens battle for the ball. Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Manchester City's David Silva (left) and Brighton's Dale Stephens battle for the ball. Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Brighton's Davy Propper in action with Manchester City's David Silva. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley
Brighton's Davy Propper in action with Manchester City's David Silva. Photo: Reuters/John Sibley

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