There was a hug on the final whistle for former team-mate Brian Laws, relief he had not fallen victim to an upset in the FA Cup, the bonus of a fourth-round home tie against Southampton and further joy with the news from Joey Barton that he might not fall prey to a Premiership rival in the January transfer window after all. Yet it was not all unbridled celebration for Stuart Pearce last night as the Manchester City manager received irrefutable proof that he must unearth a proven goalscorer within the next 15 days or be subjected to further torment for the rest of this campaign.
The City manager departed the Reebok Stadium on Saturday on the back of a motorbike in search of a new face to improve an attack that had registered just nine goals before this third-round replay. Though Darius Vassell dragged that account into double figures to defeat a valiant Sheffield Wednesday, he also confirmed exactly why Pearce is speeding to airports at every opportunity with a display that almost allowed the Championship club to take the tie into extra time.
Four times the former England striker failed to convert one-on-ones last night, and with Bernardo Corradi and Georgios Samaras also squandering glorious chances, City were subjected to a fraught finale and spared only when their profligacy proved contagious and infected Wednesday's Marcus Tudgay twice in the dying stages.
"I don't think we played particularly well, with one or two exceptions, but it was a very open game," said Pearce. "Over two matches there hasn't been a great deal to chose between the sides but, saying that, we could have been out of sight in the first half with the amount of opportunities we had."
The exceptions to which Pearce referred clearly included Barton who responded to the uncertainty about his future with a dominant midfield display bristling with energy, creativity and menace, and which, as he revealed later, was driven by irritation at how the speculation had arisen. Even before he went on television to announce his desire to remain at Manchester City, the home faithful had left the 24-year-old in no doubt as to his place in their affections.
A rousing reception greeted Barton the first time he ventured towards them to take a corner, a tribute that continued all game, and he responded by orchestrating the threat to a well-drilled, confident Wednesday side that took the game to their Premiership hosts at every opportunity and ensured their 6,000-strong support had a Cup tie worthy of their passionate following. "He shone for City and showed why everyone wants him," admitted Laws, the beaten but unbowed Wednesday manager. "I nearly had him at Scunthorpe once but unfortunately it didn't come off. I wish it had."
Barton had twice gone close for City before instigating the first of four moves that all resulted in a telling pass from Stephen Ireland to Vassell, and that all ended with a tame effort from the striker whose self-belief suffered with every opportunity. "He has the power and the pace to get into those positions and he will get there in the end," defended Pearce, "But one-on-ones are not easy." Although he was speaking after the former Aston Villa striker had granted himself a reprieve.
Despite Vassell's misses City took the lead on the stroke of half-time when Trevor Sinclair found Barton just onside. Glancing across to assess his options, the midfielder picked out the unmarked Ireland at the back post, and he did not miss an open goal from 10 yards.
Buoyed by the amount of chances his side had carved against their Premiership hosts, Laws made a bold double substitution at the break and, six minutes into the second half, Wednesday drew level through an outstanding header from their captain, Lee Bullen. Chris Brunt was the supply with a right-wing free-kick and Bullen sprinted across Micah Richards and Sinclair to glance the ball over Nicky Weaver's dive for his first goal of the season.
Ecstasy for the travelling support proved brief, however, as Vassell showed five minutes later that he is a finer finisher when he has time to think. Unlike for his previous efforts the striker had to make space for himself inside the area after Barton and Corradi had combined, and he responded with a nonchalant chip into the top corner.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Weaver; Richards, Dunne, Distin, Jordan; Sinclair, Barton, Dabo, Ireland; Corradi (Samaras, 76), Vassell (Beasley, 90). Substitutes not used: Isaksson (gk), Johnson, Miller.
Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Crossley; Simek (Wood, 88), Coughlan, Bullen, Spurr; Tudgay, Lunt (Folly, h-t), Whelan, Brunt; MacLean, Burton (Small, h-t). Substitutes not used: Adamson (gk), Graham.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).Reuse content