At the start of the season, you would have been forgiven for assuming that the League Cup fitted snugly somewhere between finishing that half eaten pot of yoghurt before it went out of date and mowing the lawn in Roberto Mancini’s list of priorities. As a test of mental fortitude and ability for the fringe and aspiring youth team hopefuls, he may even have begrudgingly admitted that a run out against lower league opposition and similarly haphazard Premier League teams offered something of a step up from reserve team football.
Football is an increasingly fickle game. Money and exposure brings with it expectation. Success does not satiate demand, it merely accentuates it. As such, it was with little surprise that the first murmurings of discontent around the Etihad Stadium had been noted in the run up to the game. Mancini’s men, so imperious throughout the season, suddenly stood on the brink of Champions League elimination owing to defeat to Napoli the Tuesday previous.
Confidence had been dented, and this was in evidence as the swashbuckling bravado which has hallmarked City’s game this season was conspicuous by its absence away to Liverpool on Sunday. Resolute defending, abetted by Joe Hart’s excellence in goal, earned Mancini’s men a point. For two games, they had regressed, eerily reminiscent of the team which shambled its way through games last season. Suddenly, the Arsenal fixture was attributed new meaning.
Let us not for a moment believe that this was City at their bewitching best. Owen Hargreaves, a stout carl for the nones in midfield, nevertheless toiled against the youthful exuberance of Emanuel Frimpong. This battle was crucial as losing it meant City failed to impose themselves on the match. They simply did not control the game in the way they have most others this season.
The wings too were an area of vulnerability. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace and directness, not to mention his Southampton heritage, bare obvious comparisons with Theo Walcott. However, there was a maturity and confidence to go for goal too which his mentor has only recently developed. Just as he did in Naples, Pablo Zabaleta struggled desperately against his classy opponent. Furthermore, it is kinder to sum up Aleksandar Kolarov’s performance by merely stating the fact that he was substituted on the half-hour rather than dissecting it. Yet again, this time employed in an advanced position, he was ineffectual.
His replacement, however, was not. First, let us congratulate the manager for such a proactive move; one which he would not have made in seasons past. It is testament to a complete u-turn in mentality, one which now compels his team, even in adverse circumstances, to chase the victory. Much better – much more entertaining too – to dare to take risks than to fear what may happen as a result. Sergio Aguero’s introduction in the Bulgarian’s stead reaped rich reward.
Edin Dzeko, having played so fitfully hitherto, picked up a stray ball from a weak Arsenal corner. A searing burst of pace took him into the Gunners’ half before finding Adam Johnson with a taut pass. Johnson’s touch was marvellous, laying in the Argentine. One-on-one, it was a foregone conclusion. A sensational break, an incandescent burst into life, and it was enough. It was a goal which deserved to manoeuvre City into the semi-finals.
That such a wonderful goal clinched victory, that such an in-form team were defeated, gives City’s cup run a new glean. It is something which ticks over the momentum the team are building, just at the first signs of faltering. It is a competition with the capacity to revive fortunes and sustain successful habits. Long may City remain in it.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Man City v Norwich