Manchester City got their League Cup defence off to a winning start as they thrashed League One Wycombe Wanderers 6-1 at the Etihad Stadium. A brace from Riyad Mahrez, and goals from Phil Foden, Kevin de Bruyne, Ferran Torres and a first senior goal for Cole Palmer sealed the win after the visitors had taken a shock lead in the 15th minute.
But it was the City Academy stars that could take the credit for the blues advancement into the last 16 of the competition they have won for the last four seasons. Manager Pep Guardiola gave debut starts to defenders Conrad Egan-Riley, Luke Mbete, Finley Burns, Josh Wilson-Esbrand, while Romeo Lavia took a place in midfield alongside Foden and de Bruyne.
James McAtee came on in the second half for his first team debut, while Palmer replaced Torres a minute after that Spaniard had scored City’s fifth of the evening.
City have been heavily criticised in the past for failing to provide opportunities for their academy stars, an accusation that was levelled at former boss Roberto Mancini, when he was dismissed in 2013. The blues have sporadically given debuts to other academy players, but names such as Jadon Sancho, Brahim Dias and more recently Eric Garcia, had again brought into question City’s seemingly reluctant stance on blooding youngsters.
But the emergence of Foden, who has gone from academy star to England international, has shown just what a special set-up the blues have, and none of the youngsters that have featured in recent City line-ups have looked out of place.
Wilson-Esbrand was impressive in a back four made up entirely of academy stars, while Palmer showed a glimpse of his goal scoring prowess, running half the length of the field, before rifling in a left foot shot from 20 yards out that flew past the keeper.
Of course, there will those that say it was only Wycombe, and anyone could keep a clean sheet and score against a League One side. Those will be the same who say they could manage the blues with the sort of budget City have, but comments like that show just how little they know about football.
With an injury growing almost by the day and three huge games in the form of Chelsea, PSG and Liverpool coming up, and all away from home, it was essential that the blues safeguarded their key defenders, so throwing in a backline of academy players was the only option. But it was Pep’s management of the midfield and strike force that kept the pressure off his young defence.
De Bruyne and Foden, both just back from injury, needed the playing time if they are to feature and have influence in the next three matches. And an attacking line up of Torres, Mahrez and Raheem Sterling would keep the pressure firmly on the visiting defence.
And the tactics worked a treat, even though Wycombe were allowed the space for a tap-in opener. De Bruyne soon levelled with a goal that was simply passed into the goal, before Mahrez gave City the lead. But it was the excellent work from Wilson-Esbrand that set him up.
Displaying a confidence that looked like he’d been playing in the first team for years, the defender teased his Wycombe counterpart, before cutting inside and playing the perfect pass for Mahrez to sweep home.
Former academy star Foden then rifled City further in front from 20 yards as City asserted their dominance over the club that had completed a league double over the blues in the 98/99 season.
A fourth by Torres came from an inch-perfect ball into the middle by Foden, putting it on a plate for the Spaniard to put City out of sight. The maturity showed by Foden in the build-up was something to behold. Taking the pass from de Bruyne, the Stockport Iniesta looked up and spotted the run of Torres, and his ball into the box was an opportunity that the number 21 wasn’t going to miss.
Wilson-Esbrand was replaced by McAtee to rapturous applause by the faithful and by manager Guardiola, who fully acknowledged the youngster’s role, which also showed the fans what they have to look forward to. Palmer also entered the fray replacing Torres, in what would be another inspired substitution.
But before that came City’s fifth, courtesy of de Bruyne, Sterling and eventual Mahrez. Wycombe tried to play a game of damage limitation, which can be dangerous when facing opposition such as City. With three players crowding round him, Sterling found de Bruyne and two touches later, the England man had been released in the box, where his cutback was met by Mahrez to guide home.
There was still time for Palmer to put his mark on the match and score his first senior goal. And it was one worth waiting for. Collecting the ball in his own half, the youngster ran forward and just kept going. With Wycombe players backing off, Palmer had time and space to pick his spot, before firing past the keeper from just outside the penalty area, a strike that de Bruyne admired and applauded.
His goal capped off a fine performance from the City youngsters, who stormed into the quarter final and kept their hopes of a fifth straight League Cup win alive.