Whatever the criticisms about Manchester City’s style of football at times this season, no matter their seeming inhibitions in the games that have mattered so far, Manchester City are tangibly close to their first piece of silverware since 1976. Micah Richards’ header was enough to see off a Reading side whose performance belied their status as Championship hopefuls in an intriguing FA Cup game of attack and counter-attack which teetered in the balance for much of it.
Any aspersions about Reading’s quality before the game were unwarranted. Although they currently sit on the periphery of a playoff challenge in the second tier, they are one of the Championship’s form sides. Attacking directly down the wings, they pragmatically make good use of their two most talented players, Jimmy Kebe and Jobi McAnuff and in Shane Long have a Premier League forward in all but name. With Everton slain in the previous round and the scalp of Liverpool claimed in last year’s competition, those immersed in the Citizens’ history must have feared the worst. The stage was set for a ‘typical City’ performance.
In the event, it was far from perfect. Roberto Mancini has been at pains to point out the strain competing on three fronts is having on his squad. City travelled straight home from their 2-0 reverse in Kiev on Thursday without time for sleep and occasionally it showed. Whilst to say they were lethargic would be an exaggeration, Mancini’s men were certainly incoherent at points and Richards’ goal was met with relief rather than euphoria in the stands. Yet still, City were superior to their opponents in every aspect of their play, dominating possession, territory and shots on goal. Even if the performance was imperfect, the victory was deserved, irrespective of Reading manager Brian McDermott’s assessment that his team deserved a draw from the match.
With Carlos Tevez industrious rather than penetrative on his return to the team, the attacking onus fell on David Silva, whose performance verged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Despite the miscued long-range shots which punctuated his display, Silva was still the most creative player on the pitch, always seeking possession and spotting cute passes which other less cerebral players would not have the capacity to play. Unsurprisingly, it was his deliciously whipped out-swinging corner which landed on Richards’ head to create the goal.
The prospect of an all-Manchester semi-final is tantalising, while the prospect of Bolton Wanderers or Stoke City in the final adds that bit more incentive to the tie. Silverware is enticingly close. The trouble is that over the past two seasons games between City and United have been that close too – all too often in the favour of the Red Devils. Last season’s Carling Cup semi-finals provided perhaps the highlight of the season, Wayne Rooney’s header a thrilling climax which broke City hearts. Michael Owen’s winner in an enthralling 4-3 defeat was no less painful.
This season the encounters have taken an altogether more cautious turn. Again Sir Alex Ferguson’s pragmatists have the upper hand so far, earning four points from the Premier League fixtures between the teams. Holding his forefinger and thumb a centimetre apart, Mancini said the difference between the teams was “this