In the wake of the stories of how Yaya Touré was roused to fury by the absence of any cake, birthdays can be touchy subjects at Manchester City. The absence of a Victoria sponge with his name on it would not have mattered to James Milner, who celebrated his 29th birthday today by taking City into the fourth round of the FA Cup.
It says everything about Milner’s attitude that could have come from any era in the game’s history that he has played every position for City except goalkeeper and centre-half.
Now, with more than an hour gone and the reality of elimination at the competition’s first hurdle coming closer by the minute, Manuel Pellegrini made a radical reshuffle, removing Stevan Jovetic, his only fit specialist striker, bringing on David Silva and Samir Nasri and moving Milner to centre-forward. He also brought off Frank Lampard, who, it was revealed, will not now be joining the MLS until July.
Yorkshireman Milner scored twice to snuff out the resistance of a Yorkshire club, denying Sheffield Wednesday first the glory of carrying off the upset of the third round and then a replay at Hillsborough.
First Nasri and Silva combined on the edge of the Wednesday area and the Spaniard produced a gorgeous pass that Milner finished off with a shot through Chris Kirkland’s legs. It was the first shot that Kirkland had been required to save all afternoon and was Milner’s first goal at the Etihad Stadium since October 2012.
Then, with the game into stoppage time, Jesus Navas – who moments earlier had blocked Jacques Maghoma when it seemed Wednesday might just snatch a dramatic winner – drove in a low cross. Silva touched it and so too, crucially, did Milner.
Where Milner will celebrate his 30th birthday is a moot point. His contract with City expires in June and Liverpool see a role for him rebuilding their post-Steven Gerrard midfield.
All City manager Pellegrini would say about his contract was: “I hope we can find an arrangement.”
When the third-round draw was made, the name of Wednesday’s opponents would have clanged around Hillsborough like a tolling bell. In September, the Owls had faced City at the Etihad in the League Cup and been thrashed 7-0. Five of the team that had started that match began this one. It proved a very different tie.
City have not always been comfortable playing Championship sides at home. They were two down to Watford at half-time in last year’s FA Cup before winning 4-2 and were eventually knocked out by Wigan Athletic.
“I am very relieved because we didn’t play well,” said Pellegrini after today's narrow escape. “We were very bad except in the last 20 minutes, when we moved up another gear to try to make space against a team that had defended very well.”
However, it was the man wearing Wednesday’s No 9 shirt who made the greatest impression in the opening exchanges.
Atdhe Nuhiu’s story is typical of those from what used to be known as Yugoslavia. His family moved from Kosovo when he was a baby, he has played for Austria at under-21 level and tried to gain clearance to play senior international football for Albania.
Nuhiu is 6ft 6in and, despite the fact that he once played for Rapid Vienna, he has the speed and acceleration of a wardrobe. However, as his strike partner Stevie May drove forward and took City’s defence with him, Nuhiu timed his run to meet the pull-back. The shot was perfect and for 40 minutes the city of Sheffield looked as if it would have two Premier League victims. Milner forced them to settle for one.Reuse content