MANCHESTER, England — Three thoughts from Manchester City’s 5-1 win against Huddersfield, which sees Pep Guardiola’s team advance to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup.
1. Man City surge through to last eight
Manchester City had embarked on a 7,000-mile round trip to Abu Dhabi. They had eight days between games. Yet in one respect, it was as though this was a continuation of their 5-3 win against Monaco, marked by excitement, unpredictability, attacking football and goals.
The surprise was that the second half saw a mere two go in. There was no shock in the eventual result, as City progressed to an FA Cup quarterfinal against Middlesbrough, but Huddersfield threatened to spring one as they made nine changes and took a seventh-minute lead.
Yet Guardiola had come prepared. He took no chances, fielding his most feared forwards. They duly obliged. Huddersfield went 299 minutes into their FA Cup run without conceding. Then, they let in three goals in eight minutes. Much like the teamsheet, it was a statement of intent from City. This is their best chance of silverware and when they surge forward with such enthusiasm and invention, they look potential winners.They showed persistence in the frustrating period before Leroy Sane levelled. Sergio Aguero then converted a penalty, greeted with ironic cheers after three previous City claims were ignored by referee Paul Tierney, a point Sane made to the official. Pablo Zabaleta was given an open goal by his compatriot to make it three. An enviably sharp Aguero recorded successive braces by converting Raheem Sterling’s cross to complete a terrific team move. City’s 10th goal in two home games came when one substitute, Jesus Navas, set up another, Kelechi Iheanacho.
They also have an extraordinary record against Huddersfield that highlights their tradition of instability. City had failed to score in their previous four home meetings. The one before that finished 10-1. If it is an exaggeration to say this could have been a similar scoreline, it is worth remembering that both Sane and Aguero hit the woodwork and that Joel Coleman made fine saves from Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne.
But only Huddersfield’s second defeat of 2017 should be placed into context. Saturday’s clash with promotion rivals Newcastle represents the big game of their week. Manager David Wagner, confined to the stands by a touchline ban, prioritised accordingly.
2. Sane and Sterling spearhead improvement
It is no coincidence that City have looked a formidable attacking proposition since returning to 4-3-3 or, with the notable exception of the 4-0 thrashing at Everton, that their results in 2017 have been encouraging. The change has been spearheaded by their increasingly influential wingers.
Sane, Guardiola feels, has been like a new signing in January. Sterling has regained his spark, having begun the campaign superbly before suffering a dip in form.
Arriving at a combined cost of £86 million, they did not come cheap. But there are fewer mentions of Sterling’s £49m price tag now. That is partly a product of time: There is no novelty value in the description anymore. But it is also an indication that he is performing. If Sane seemed superfluous at times during his injury-hit first half of the season, now he seems essential. He is managing to master two different arts, giving City genuine width while also arriving in the penalty box to act as a predator.
Sane has five goals in his last eight starts and has scored in successive home games. Both have been open goals, but the 21-year-old nevertheless merits credit for taking up such positions. His leveller against Huddersfield owed much to Sterling, who had bamboozled the visitors’ defence with a series of stepovers before centring. He supplied another low cross for Aguero’s second goal.
And it is a sign of Sterling’s impact under Guardiola that he has been involved in 22 goals under the boss, scoring nine and assisting for 13 more. Such statistics may pale into insignificance compared to some of Guardiola’s charges at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but they amount to improvement nonetheless. Potential is being realised on either wing.
3. Bravo fails again in moment for Bunn to savour
Guardiola’s arrival has brought a focus on City’s present and their future, but the attention was deflected to their past after seven minutes.
Harry Bunn was a City player for 13 years, albeit without playing for the first team. He joined at age nine, was sent out on loan six times and moved on to Huddersfield in 2014. This ranked as a belated competitive debut at the Etihad Stadium for a player whose association with City began in 2001 — so long ago that their home was at Maine Road.
Bunn soon made up for lost time. He drilled a low shot beyond Claudio Bravo, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was his first goal of the season. Indeed, it was only a seventh start for the midfielder.
The opener also was notable for the contribution of Philip Billing, who passed to Bunn. The giant Dane had been the outstanding player on the pitch against City 11 days earlier. This was another indication that Billing, who is just 20, has the potential to play at a higher level.
Yet a third player’s role was less impressive. Bravo’s capacity to get out of the way of shots was apparent again here. He often waves them past him and this one went through his legs. It continued a theme: The Chile international has a habit of conceding to the first shot on target he faces. He has played four games since Jan. 2; against Everton, Tottenham and now Huddersfield, City have let in a goal before a save was made. The exception was the original tie with the Terriers, when Bravo made a couple of fine stops in a 0-0 draw.
But, like many of his other mishaps, this was ill-timed. On Tuesday, Guardiola had in effect ruled out bringing Joe Hart back next season by saying he was “so happy” with Willy Caballero and Bravo. It was a judgment that seemed based more on faith than evidence.
When City had two penalty appeals rejected after the ball struck Jon Stankovic’s arm, it prompted suggestions the Huddersfield defender is better with his hands than Bravo. Certainly it felt patronising when Bravo practically got a standing ovation for making a decent, though unexceptional, save from Jack Payne. Guardiola did not look pleased as his vanity project was mocked.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.