No need for Aguero, Sterling or the Silvas! Pep's 'FA Cup team' puts City back on top of the league
- September 21, 2019
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Pep Guardiola left out several key men for a must-win game against Cardiff but his squad’s staggering strength in depth was evident in an easy 2-0 win
April promises to be a crazy month for Manchester City as they go in search of a quadruple of trophies, so what better way to start it than by demonstrating the incredible strength of their squad?
The opposition may only have been relegation strugglers Cardiff – deemed the most unlikely winners of any game in Premier League history by the bookmakers – but Pep Guardiola’s men looked calm and collected as they cantered to a 2-0 victory that should set them up for what is to come, in more ways than one.
This was effectively their FA Cup line-up, which probably goes to show why they’re favourites to win that competition as well.
There was no Sergio Aguero, no Bernardo SIlva, no David Silva and no Raheem Sterling on Wednesday, but still they could call upon Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus and even Phil Foden.
It must be said that Guardiola has been cautious in his use of the 18-year-old this season, as far as the Premier League is concerned anyway.
Foden had not started a league game for City before the visit of Cardiff and Guardiola’s general rule seemed to be that if there was any danger of City losing a game – if the scoreline was 2-0 or less, for example – Foden would not come off the bench.
But as Guardiola looked ahead to the daunting schedule, he did what so many have been waiting for and threw Foden in. To the surprise of nobody, the youngster looked right at home, darting about the midfield, exchanging passes with his more experienced team-mates. He was unlucky not to score.
He may even get a run out at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final against Brighton on Saturday, but perhaps not, given the sheer quality City have in reserve.
Ilkay Gundogan and the two Silvas will be key as City face three games against Tottenham in the coming weeks, as well as trips to Old Trafford, Selhurst Park and Turf Moor, and given the trio were rested here, they will be hoping to feature next time out.
The same goes for Sterling, who has been in fine form here and will not miss many games between now and the end of the season as long as he stays fit.
But if he were to, there were encouraging signs from Sane, in particular, that Guardiola has players for every occasion.
Sane and Mahrez have not been able to dislodge Sterling and Bernardo in recent weeks and have even floundered when they have been given a run out from the start, but against Cardiff they showed none of the complacency that earned them early withdrawals against West Ham in February and Swansea in March.
It could not be said that they put in superb performances at the Etihad, and the quality of the opposition must be taken into account, but they were much better than they have been of late, suggesting they have regained a little of their focus.
Sane’s goal, arriving one minute before half-time when he slammed in on the half-volley from a Jesus chest-down, ended the game as a contest. Not that it had ever been truly competitive.
City had simply torn into Cardiff from the first whistle with an intensity that suggests they know they cannot take any game for granted from here on in.
That was partly driven by Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho, who were given further opportunities to improve their fitness levels. It is hard to pinpoint City’s most influential player but those two would both be able to stake a claim, and their returns are particularly timely.
De Bruyne has missed most of the season through various injuries and he has struggled to find a rhythm when he has been available, but he is looking sharp again, ready for City’s tougher games. If he can play at anywhere near the level he reached last season, City will get even better.
It was he who opened the scoring from a tight angle after just six minutes, and had Jesus been a little sharper inside the box, the Brazilian would have had a few goals, and the Belgian a few assists.
Jesus linked up well with his team-mates, but Aguero remains the main man up front. The Argentine should be back in action in the next week or so, but his younger team-mate will need to step up when he is invariably called upon again.
The only real bad news for City on the night was an injury to Oleksandr Zinchenko, who felt his hamstring early on and was withdrawn. With Benjamin Mendy not in the squad – perhaps related to his latest run-in with Guardiola after he was spotted in a nightclub on Friday – City could all of a sudden be caught short at left-back.
But then again, they can use the perfectly capable Danilo there for a while, and maybe even Aymeric Laporte – and that’s only if Mendy does not make it back into the first team.
He is fit, however, and if he is able to feature he could make a bigger impact on the team than any of his team-mates, owing to his unique ability to get forward and the tactical options he provides Guardiola.
So, just as they did at Fulham on Saturday, City cantered to a comfortable 2-0 win. They could and should have scored more goals here, that’s for sure, but there was no pressing need to.
Tougher tests lay ahead but you would have to say the evidence suggests City are coming to the boil at the right time.
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