Wed. Mar 3rd, 2021

Bernardo Silva celebrates scoring (REUTERS)
Bernardo Silva celebrates scoring (REUTERS)

Never in doubt. Manchester City eased through to the fourth round of the FA Cup, overcoming Birmingham City with the effortlessness that Pep Guardiola’s side often display when playing at home to inferior opponents. Three unanswered first-half goals – two for Bernardo Silva, another for Phil Foden – not only settled this tie, but ensured that City could rest key players for greater challenges.

This was over as a contest within a quarter of an hour. That was all the time it took for City to make sure the scoreline reflected the gulf in class between themselves and their Championship opponents, and all the time that Bernardo required to score his first and second goals of the season. Both were brilliant but for different reasons: one on an individual level, the other as a collective.

The first might have been avoided had Birmingham captain George Friend managed to send a headed clearance further than the edge of his own penalty area. It was a poor piece of defending but one that he would have got away with if not Bernardo’s magical technique on the half-volley, catching the ball perfectly with his left foot, just as it seemed to be rising too high for him to reach.

That height helped to guide the ball into the top-left hand corner and out of goalkeeper Andres Prieto’s reach. The relief on Bernardo’s face was plain to see. Arguably City’s player of the season in Guardiola’s second title-winning campaign two years ago, he has rarely reached the same level since. But having ended a run of 21 games without a goal at club level, he would soon score again.

This time, the finish was simple. A wonderful, flowing team move incorporating Foden, Kevin De Bruyne, Joao Cancelo and Riyad Mahrez made it so. The pick of the many passes in the build-up was Mahrez’s swipe at the ball with the outside of his foot which released De Bruyne to the byline. From there, Birmingham could do nothing to prevent the cut-back into the feet of Bernardo, standing six yards out from an open goal.

Mahrez was in a generous mood. It was his wonderful searching pass which played Foden through on Prieto’s goal just after the half-hour mark, only for Mikel San Jose to recover with a sliding challenge. But the same combination would produce City’s third just two minutes later, with Mahrez squaring after a burst through Birmingham’s midfield and Foden sweeping the ball into the bottom right-hand corner from outside the box.

Nobody would have blamed Guardiola if he had replaced the likes of De Bruyne, Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo at that very moment. Instead, he waited until the break to introduce John Stones and two youngsters in Felix Nmecha and Taylor Harwood-Bellis. Fernandinho and Liam Delap followed during a second half played at a sedate pace, with Birmingham lacking the ability to threaten and City lacking the inclination.

Bernardo could have secured his first hat-trick since a 9-0 demolition of Watford on this ground in September 2019 – right before his strange slump began – but he failed to spin and finish from close range after receiving Foden’s corner inside the six-yard box. Mahrez might have scored the goal his all-round performance deserved but after finishing Rodri’s delicate ball over the top of the Birmingham defence, he was judged to have strayed marginally offside.

Birmingham, to their credit, stepped up their efforts for a consolation during the final stages, with substitute Lukas Jutkiewicz forcing Stones into an important block and Jeremie Bela missing the target. Aitor Karanka will take solace from the fact that his second-tier strugglers avoided a hiding and even drew the second half nil-nil. By that point though, the contest had already been won and City’s job had been done.

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