Manchester City finally lift the curse to knock Tottenham out the FA Cup

Manchester City players celebrate after Nathan Ake, right, scores their winning goal (Reuters)
Manchester City players celebrate after Nathan Ake, right, scores their winning goal (Reuters)

Finally, the curse was lifted. Manchester City are a magnificent team, the rightful champions of Europe and the world, but on this rectangular patch of ground in north London they have been a mixture of unfortunate, underwhelming and comically inept. Before tonight they had played five games at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and lost them all, never even scoring a goal despite accumulating an xG of about 375. For 88 minutes here history rhymed, until Nathan Ake’s bundled late winner, a game won in the most un-Cityish of ways.

Pep Guardiola had been getting increasingly irate, so much so that he was booked for sarcastically applauding referee Paul Tierney during the second half of this FA Cup tie. He would have recognised some similar traits of games that had gone before here, in which City created chance after chance but could not alter the scoreboard. An early goal was chalked off by the barest of margins; Julian Alvarez, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Jeremy Doku all missed prime chances.

But where Guardiola had come against stubborn defensive units in the past, deliberately designed to annoy him by Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo and Antonio Conte, this Ange Postecoglou team was never going to play that way. Tottenham tried to play their way, but they never managed to gain control and ultimately their open gameplan failed, albeit at the very last, at a corner, when so much hard work had been done. City won 1-0 and the defending champions will be in the hat for the fifth round.

Without Yves Bissouma and Pape Matar Sarr, both away at the Africa Cup of Nations, Tottenham’s centre was made of mush, and City found it easy to play through there. Alvarez and Phil Foden would sometimes drop into the hole to turn and drive at the Spurs defence, but often Mateo Kovacic carried the ball all on his own, dribbling past the flimsy tackles of Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur on his way from one box to the other.

City almost made the perfect start. They had the ball in the net after only five minutes through Oscar Bobb’s close-range rebound, but his left hallux was correctly adjudged to have been offside as he pounced, a miniscule crime somehow spotted by assistant referee Adrian Holmes.

Spurs were enduring the rare sensation of being on the back foot at their home ground, as City made neat passing patterns around them. City, though, struggled to find anything resembling a killer pass, weighed down too often by Jokso Gvardiol’s lack of quality after creeping up the left touchline into some threatening positions.

In City’s best moments, Tottenham’s last-ditch defending was outstanding. Destiny Udogie raced back to steal the ball from Foden’s toes as he arrived in the box sniffing for goal, and later the other Spurs full-back, Pedro Porro, launched himself in front of Bobb’s low shot to block, before roaring at the crowd like a champion boxer on the corner ropes.

When Tottenham occasionally forayed forwards themselves, often on the counterattack with City stretched, it was in behind Gvardiol where they found joy. Brennan Johnson and then Porro raced down the right in quick succession midway through the first half, but both failed to locate the arriving Richarlison with their cross.

City created their best chance yet at the start of the second half when Bobb whipped a cross from the left for Alvarez at the back post. He took a touch before firing off a shot from perhaps 10 yards, but again a Spurs defender threw themselves in the line of fire, this time the centre-back Micky van de Ven.

From then on, the game became more fraught, more fractious. Tackles suddenly carried venom. Kovacic was booked for hacking at Udogie’s standing leg, Udogie was booked for raking Silva’s ankle, and a frustrated Guardiola was shown yellow too. The crowd became more emotionally engaged, lifted off their seats by the merest hint of a penalty or suggestion of an incorrect assistant’s flag.

City still had the best of it, but Spurs were making a game now. Timo Werner offered a rare reminder of his existence when he skipped away from Silva and slipped in Johnson behind the City defence, but stand-in goalkeeper Stefan Ortega rushed out well to block at the winger’s feet.

As time ticked away, eyes began to glance down to the dugouts for inspiration. Guardiola brought on De Bruyne and Doku. Postecoglou brought on Oliver Skipp and James Maddison, the latter to a howl of approval from Tottenham fans. It was his first appearance since 6 November, and you could sense the hope.

But it was City who had all of the late chances. Silva missed an enticing half-volley which sat up 15 yards from goal, but which he could only drill low into Guglielmo Vicario’s clutches. Moments later Hojbjerg had a mental aberration, running straight into Foden while dribbling in his own box. Foden squared for De Bruyne in space to surely kill the game, but the Belgian somehow pulled his shot wide.

Doku’s chance was even better, racing through on goal one on one with Vicario. His first touch was a little heavy, allowing Porro to get close enough to nudge him off balance, and his eventual shot was scuffed and easily saved. But Ake finally did what the attacking stars couldn’t, poking a fumbled ball home from all of a yard. Spurs appealed for some kind of foul on Vicario but VAR found nothing. At the end of their sixth game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, City had finally scored.