It went better than Manchester City’s previous game in the FA Cup that finished with Roberto Mancini’s sacking after a final lost in the driving Wembley rain – but not much better. This was another questionable away performance, featuring another goalkeeping error and topped off by the dismissal of the full-back Dedryck Boyata five minutes from the end of a tie that Blackburn might have won.
They did not and, given City’s formidable record at the Etihad Stadium, they will back themselves in the replay. However, it means that plans for a trip to Abu Dhabi for warm-weather training and a friendly against Al Ain, the Gulf League champions, must be scrapped.
Blackburn’s rewards are rather greater. The £500,000 they can expect to earn from a replay will pay for Tom Cairney, whose signing they had just completed from Hull City for a similar amount. The young midfielder’s technique was as good as any on display here and right at the finish a shot that would have won the game whistled past Costel Pantilimon’s post.
However, as his manager, Gary Bowyer, pointed out, this was a game that had restored some pride in a club whose owners, Venky’s, have spent £100 million on creating a mid-table Championship side out of a mid-table Premier League one.
There were just four survivors from the team that in February had knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup, which tells a story of the convulsions the club has been through. However, this display was comparable. Bowyer said: “It was a terrific performance against a world-class team.”
The match turned 10 minutes after the interval when Pantilimon spilled a straightforward header from Rudy Gestede at Scott Dann’s feet. As he had done after Joe Hart’s errors, his manager, Manuel Pellegrini, refused to criticise the keeper, saying he would analyse the performance with his technical staff first. He did add that Boyata deserved his red card for a second bookable offence.
The sight of Paul Robinson keeping goal for Blackburn meant that Pantilimon’s error should not be blown up into a “calamity” or a “personal tragedy”. This was Robinson’s first game in 13 months. After undergoing back surgery he had developed a clot in the main artery that feeds the lung which, but for some prompt diagnosis over the phone by the Blackburn club doctor, Duncan Robertson, might have killed him.
Recuperating at home in Yorkshire, Robinson confessed to “feeling like a 90-year-old smoker with asthma”. Here, he felt like a professional keeper with 41 England caps. There were saves from Jesus Navas and Edin Dzeko and, after another had almost squirmed through his feet, he burst into a grin. Even had Blackburn lost, the day would not have been a disaster.
At the interval, it looked as though Blackburn would lose. City had initially been surprised by their aggression but after 20 minutes or so, they had found their feet and Alvaro Negredo, a striker who seems made for the FA Cup, was finding the range. The big Spaniard had already demonstrated flashes of considerable skill when he found himself inevitably in the right place at the far post to volley home a flick-on from Dzeko. City were one up and the fourth round and the waters of the Arabian Gulf were beckoning.
The goal sparked bitter recriminations among the Blackburn defence, with Grant Hanley squaring up to Chris Taylor in a row that continued as the players headed into the tunnel at the interval and carried echoes of the punch-up between Graeme Le Saux and David Batty on the pitch in Moscow during a Champions League tie.
Blackburn are light years from the Champions League but they are not the mess they were. The last time Ewood Park had staged an FA Cup tie was an abysmal quarter-final against Millwall that was squandered in front of a crowd of 8,600. There were not that many more home fans now but the experience was rather more uplifting.
Blackburn Rovers (4-5-1): Robinson; Henley, Dann, Hanley, Spurr; Cairney, Taylor, Lowe, Williamson (King, 64), Marshall (Campbell, 80); Gestede (Rhodes, 80).
Manchester City (4-4-2): Pantilimon; Boyata, Lescott, Nastasic, Clichy; Milner, Fernardino (Touré, 64), Garcia, Silva (Zabaleta, 88); Negredo (Navas, 75), Dzeko.
Referee: Michael Oliver.
Man of the match: Cairney (Blackburn)
Match rating: 7/10