Manchester City eased into the FA Cup fourth round with a comfortable 4-1 win over League Two side Port Vale, thanks to goals from Oleksandr Zinchenko and Sergio Aguero in the first half, followed by a first goal for Taylor Harwood-Bellis and a fully deserved goal for the outstanding Phil Foden.
Some may say that it’s only Port Vale, a team sitting in mid-table of League Two that has only one won of their last five league games and are six points off the play-off zone having only won 8 of their 25 games so far this season. But in the FA Cup, league form, and often the difference in division goes out of the window and despite the lowly status of the opposition, no team can be taken lightly in this competition.
With the League Cup semi-final against United on Tuesday, manager Pep Guardiola took an opportunity to rest some of his senior players, but there was more than enough talent on display to not disrespect the competition or the opposition. Harwood-Bellis started alongside John Stones at the heart of City’s defence and there were also starts for Angelino and Joao Cancelo in a very unfamiliar looking back four. Well, we say back four, but Angelino seemed to spend most of his time on the left wing which the blues exploited time and again throughout the match.
Foden lined up alongside the two Silva’s in midfield, Zinchenko and Ilkay Gundogan in midfield and Aguero continued his comeback from injury by completing a full 90 minutes.
In true FA Cup style, it was the lower league team that had the first chance within the first 60 seconds and forced a corner for themselves, which was a sign that Vale were not going to lie down and take a thrashing from the holders, who won the trophy in style last May, beating Watford 6-0 at Wembley. The visitors did their homework and did what most Premier League teams try and do – sit deep and throw almost everyone behind the ball.
We saw this tactic from Everton and Sheffield United over the festive period – stifle their attack, get everyone behind the ball and hit them on the break. It’s a favoured technique from most of the visitors to City and it often fails. We saw when Wolves and United visited, they were happy to get forward and deal with whatever we throw at them and they walked away with three points, but that sort of tactic wouldn’t work for a team like Vale. Or so we thought.
As you would expect, the blues dominated the match possession wise and when Zinchenko gave the blues the lead with a rocket of a shot that took a deflection before finding the net, Vale fans would have been forgiven for thinking the floodgates would open, especially when David Silva hit the bar when it was easier to score and the ball failed to drop for Aguero to tap home.
But for some reason, whenever Claudio Bravo plays, an opposition goal seems inevitable and it came in the form of a decent header by Tom Pope to draw Vale level. Some may criticise Angelino for the goal, who failed to get back fast enough to prevent the cross into the box. In fairness, it was an excellent cross on the Vale right, the sort that just cries out for a striker to meet it. And the Vale striker to was a step ahead of Harwood-Bellis to meet the ball, the only time the young defender put a foot wrong in the whole match. In fairness to Bravo, it was way beyond his reach and no stopping it and was really the only time the keeper was tested.
And while Harwood-Bellis was composed and steady, it was another youngster who really captured the eye. Phil Foden, dubbed the Stockport Iniesta, was truly outstanding in the centre of the park. His willingness to not only get forward, make space for himself and shoot on sight, but he tracked back effectively to make a couple of vital interceptions. And the youngster had clearly been reading the Kevin de Bruyne assist handbook when he set up Aguero to put City in front. The Argentine didn’t bother to celebrate his goal, correctly guessing that it would go to VAR for checking, before being awarded the goal…eventually.
Foden continued his impressive display in the second half and between him and the two Silva’s, the City midfield tightened up and was able to exploit the left wing again, where Angelino effectively disregarded his defensive duties and pretty much turned into a winger.
Time and again, the Spanish left back was found in acres of space on the left wing and it was only a matter of time that the freedom he was receiving would end in a goal. And it was only fitting that Foden would be on the end of one of his crosses. The midfielder casually swept home City’s fourth goal in the same manner that he’d just made killer pass. Foden made the goal look so easy and has now surely staked a claim for the United match or a Premier League start at Aston Villa next Sunday.
That came after another lengthy VAR check for City’s third goal. John Stones, who sometimes looked a little shaky in defence and almost gifted Vale a second goal with an attempted cross-field pass that was intercepted, slotted home but again failed to celebrate as VAR took another check. A suspected offside against Harwood-Bellis was scrutinised to within an inch of its life before deciding the youngster was onside and the goal was in fact gifted to him for his first senior goal.
Sadly, it was yet another match dominated by VAR and the two decisions that some have claimed Part Vale fell foul of and the now reluctance of City players to even think about celebrating until VAR has completed its check. Foden’s body was onside before crossing for Aguero, but his arm was slightly off. Time and again this season with various teams, we have seen that sort of goal disallowed, but on this occasion, referee Lee Mason declared him onside.
Likewise, for Harwood-Bellis’ goal. The defender was initially flagged offside, but as usual the decision went to VAR before eventually being given. The frustration that the fans are feeling in the ground or watching on TV is now being felt on the pitch. The refusal to celebrate until VAR has had the final word is sucking the life from the game. Well, what’s the point in wheeling off to celebrate only to be pulled back until the goal is checked. And by the time the check is over, players aren’t interested in running around jubilantly. Simply put, VAR should be looking for clear and obvious errors, and if it takes longer than 30 seconds to decide, then it’s not clear and obvious.
For some reason though, City’s game is not the perfect article. Again, there were mistakes in the passing, resulting in either the ball going out of play or completely overhit, particularly in the first half, which resulted in frustration for the fans who feel a team of City’s quality should be making better passes against lower league opposition.
Thankfully, this improved drastically in the second half and City’s hunger and desire returned. They killed the game off through two second half goals, but then went in search of more, despite the game being won. Even in the last minute, substitute Riyad Mahrez was trying to make it 5-1 and the impressive Foden still chasing balls down with minutes remaining and the game effectively won.
It’s the sort of hunger that City need to keep alive during the second half of the season, the sort they had from February to May last year which took them all the way to the domestic treble.