As Pep Guardiola looked forward to catching up with his old friend Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal side in the semi-finals, Newcastle United renewed their unwanted acquaintance with an all too familiar foe.
Cup failure has become such a part of the club’s modern history that they last won a trophy – the Fairs Cup – in 1969. Steve Bruce had hoped to change that narrative after guiding Newcastle to their first quarter-final in 15 years but, propelled by a Kevin De Bruyne penalty and a gorgeous Raheem Sterling goal, Guardiola’s largely excellent City ensured the wait goes on.
The enduring hope on Tyneside is that, the next time City come here, Newcastle will be under largely Saudi Arabian control and the silverware cupboard could be set for a restock. For the moment, though, the Premier League has consigned the club to another thoroughly frustrating wait, three months this time, as it ponders whether to approve a potentially transformative £300m deal.
Bruce has recently experimented, fairly successfully, with a tactical makeover, namely a back four, but perhaps sensibly he reverted to a 3-4-2-1 formation here. City were bound to be galvanised by Liverpool’s title win so a measure of caution seemed essential – which is not to say that Newcastle intended to be entirely risk averse.
The decision to hand Andy Carroll his first start of 2020 in the lone striking role translates as a gamble in anyone’s language but, quite apart from wanting to reward Carroll for losing five kilograms during lockdown, Bruce decided his very own divine ponytail had a better chance of highlighting City’s defensive vulnerabilities than the dropped Joelinton.
Sure enough Carroll’s first aerial duel with Aymeric Laporte resulted in the visiting defender lying prone on the ground and requiring prolonged treatment before finally being helped, rather gingerly, to his feet.
Generally, though, City were not so much in control as omnipotent, dictating Carroll had precious little opportunity to probe those suspected susceptibilities at the back. Instead Guardiola’s players hogged the ball to such an embarrassing extent that it raised the question as to whether Newcastle’s inability to retain possession was down to the sheer quality of the opposition or the restrictions imposed by their formation.
If the answer was principally the former but probably a bit of both, there was little equivocal about the inviting early chance missed by Riyad Mahrez – and with his preferred left foot. It came at the end of a lovely passing move conjured by Kevin De Bruyne – celebrating his 29th birthday – and David Silva before Mahrez curled that shot narrowly off target.
Already, Newcastle looked in acute peril of being overwhelmed by City’s seemingly inexorable tide of one and two‑touch passing. Karl Darlow, enjoying a rare start in goal in place of the rested Martin Dubravka, needed to react with alacrity to divert Sterling’s shot after Mahrez’s initial effort had been deflected into the England forward’s path.
With Silva and De Bruyne supreme and Claudio Bravo virtually redundant in goal, Bruce’s players were pushed ever deeper and, at times, looked to have abandoned the struggle to escape their own half. Indeed the only surprise was that it took 37 minutes for City to open the scoring. Given the aesthetics that had gone before the goal should really have come from open play but, instead, was stroked past Darlow by De Bruyne from the penalty spot after Fabian Schär had used both hands to push Gabriel Jesus over following Kyle Walker’s right-wing cross.
De Bruyne sent Darlow the wrong way – which appeared thoroughly emblematic of what had been happening to Newcastle’s outfield players all evening.
Bruce reverted to a back four after the interval with Schär moving into central midfield and Sean Longstaff pushed forward to the base of a diamond system. His side responded by, at long last, pressing City into a few places they did not necessarily want to be.
At long last Allan Saint-Maximin was able to use his pace and skill to, albeit occasionally, get in behind Guardiola’s defence. Finally the French winger was operating in a framework which enabled him to properly run at, and sometimes beat, Walker.
Although City remained the superior team, they would have been back on level terms had Dwight Gayle – newly on for Carroll – not directed a sitter over the bar from eight yards after being cleverly cued up by Saint‑Maximin’s low cross. It represented a reprieve for Nicolás Otamendi whose slapdash pass had been, gleefully, intercepted by Saint-Maximin.
As Gayle looked both mortified and inconsolable, Laporte demonstrated City’s centre-halves have their pluses courtesy of a splendid cross‑field pass to Phil Foden. All that remained was for the substitute to show off an exquisite touch before playing in Sterling who, thanks to Benjamin Mendy’s decoy overlap, had time to shift the ball on to his right foot and direct a curving shot beyond Darlow.