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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jamie Jackson at the Etihad Stadium

Manchester City edge FA Cup battle of title rivals as Nathan Aké sinks Arsenal

Nathan Aké celebrates his well-taken winner for Manchester City.
Nathan Aké celebrates his well-taken winner for Manchester City. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Danehouse/Getty Images

If the quality was dialled down in this heavyweight collision, there were still enough feints, jabs, punches and counters to fascinate. Manchester City administered the knockout blow. They were close to ineffectual before the break, then came out and took the tie to Arsenal. Pep Guardiola can be snarky about the timings of his substitutions but his introduction of Julián Álvarez on 58 minutes was a masterstroke. It was the forward’s 20-yard effort that presaged Nathan Aké’s winner: it crashed into a post and then Jack Grealish took over and weaved his magic.

A twist and a turn in the area bought time and space for an offload. Who knows why the defender was goal-hanging but Aké’s cool finish with his weaker right was rolled beyond Matt Turner with aplomb to send himself, manager, teammates and the home congregation into raptures.

Later, the lurking Eddie Nketiah might have equalised from Granit Xhaka’s cross from the left but Aymeric Laporte got in the way and cleared and so while City ended with the spoils, as a primer for the two league meetings to come between the champions and leaders this was a succulent taster. And, after all the chat about how the histrionic Guardiola and Mikel Arteta might clash, they were calm apart from when the latter had a pop at fourth official, Robert Jones, who seemed to warn he might be censured.

This lack of poise from an Arsenal manager whose decision to have his men man-mark City surprised Guardiola was the inverse to how they performed in the opening 45 minutes. First up was Leandro Trossard who, on his full debut, fed Takehiro Tomiyasu whose shot was parried by Stefan Ortega.

At the other end Erling Haaland had already manhandled Rob Holding and when Manuel Akanji threaded into the No 9 the centre-back faltered and Turner had to race out to block the Norwegian’s effort. The ball ricocheted back, Haaland let go a misdirected overhead kick, and the Gunners escaped.

City were in their now quasi-familiar 3-3-3-1 shape with the ball, Rico Lewis tucking inside from right-back to play the Philipp Lahm auxiliary midfield role. This still did not allow mastery of territory and opponent and was indicative of Guardiola’s recent concerns about his misfiring charges: an illustration arrived when Ilkay Gündogan smacked a simple pass straight past Haaland into Turner’s hands.

Arsenal were more potent. A second baring of teeth had Trossard the recipient of sharp ball-work from Bukayo Saka and Fabio Vieira: the Belgian blazed at goal and Ortega flew left to save.

Kevin De Bruyne, who usually runs the show for them on home turf, was yet to be sighted but as the half hour approached he drifted inside and curled a left-foot effort just wide of Turner’s goal.

Elsewhere the Haaland-Holding wrestling bout had another round when the latter elbowed the former in the head. Treatment was required and when proceedings recommenced Nketiah had his side’s third clear chance. Trossard, again, had a part – his cross went to the centre-forward and he missed from near-in.

Leandro Trossard caused City plenty of problems in a promising first start for Arsenal.
Leandro Trossard caused City plenty of problems in a promising first start for Arsenal. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Danehouse/Getty Images

Guardiola’s men, at this juncture, were about as fluid as cottage cheese. A vignette that had De Bruyne bundled over by Gabriel and Grealish committing a foul was a precis of their bitty mode. Even when Haaland later threatened, the shot ballooned wide, and the opening derived from a sliced Kieran Tierney pass, not via City’s usual geometric wizardry.

The overall verdict on the half, though, also had Arsenal below their best in a contest that lost John Stones near the break due to what appeared a muscle injury.

It meant Laporte joining the fray in an XI that in showing only two changes – Ortega and Aké for Ederson and the Spain international – supported Guardiola’s stance that this cup is one of “beauty” to be claimed.

Arsenal’s 19-year title drought was surely why Arteta signalled that prize is the priority by making six changes. All those left out were big names, led by his captain, Martin Ødegaard, so the Spaniard could be pleased with those drafted in. Tomiyasu (for Ben White) was one and his harrying of Grealish right after the break would also have impressed Guardiola as it was straight from the Catalan’s pressing playbook.

But his team at last moved into higher gear via a rapid counter: De Bruyne zipped the ball to Haaland and was thwarted but it was a sign City at last had the home crowd yelling encouragement, and those in blue gave them more. De Bruyne, on the overlap received from Riyad Mahrez, pinged in from the right and a flailing Turner palmed the ball away from the lurking Haaland.

Gabriel Martinelli, on as a replacement, terrorised City with three late forays but they held on for a victory that may be of psychological import ahead of the league clashes.

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