Man City gathering momentum after FA Cup display – and they will only get stronger

Manchester City 5-0 Huddersfield Town: The holders swept into the FA Cup fourth round as Kevin De Bruyne made his long-awaited return to the pitch

Richard Jolly
at the Etihad Stadium
Sunday 07 January 2024 20:37 GMT
City safely progressed to the FA Cup fourth round
City safely progressed to the FA Cup fourth round (Getty Images)

Even on a day of comebacks, the defining figure may have been a man who is not yet ready to return. For the second successive weekend at the Etihad Stadium, the loudest ovation did not greet a goal, but the sight of one of the great figures in Manchester City’s history. This time, unlike against Sheffield United, Kevin De Bruyne came off the bench, registering a first appearance in 149 days and a second assist of his interrupted season. Jeremy Doku returned, too, after an eight-game absence, to benefit from his fellow Belgian’s supply line.

And yet, as Huddersfield Town were duly eliminated from the FA Cup, they may have had reasons to be grateful Erling Haaland remains sidelined; so, too, a couple of City players. The home faithful, with memories of a 10-1 victory against Town in 1987, chorused “we want 10”. It may be unfair to Darren Moore’s team, who defended diligently, to suggest they would have got their wish were the Norwegian fit.

Yet if City are less likely to amass record scorelines without their most predatory player, others capitalised on the opportunity to lead the line. Julian Alvarez, who may soon have to revert to a deeper role, scored his fifth goal in four games. Phil Foden had broken the deadlock when operating as a No 10: terrific wherever he plays and taking over in attack after Alvarez’s substitution, he took his tally to four goals in as many matches. They have been City’s two principal scorers in Haaland’s absence, ensuring that, apart from the 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace, they have won every game without him.

It is an indication of the heights City have reached, the unsurprising nature of victories, and the brilliance of De Bruyne that substitutions can seem the day’s highlight. Certainly, the volume levels peaked when he was seen in a City shirt for the first time since August. Doku’s arrival, in a double change, was camouflaged by the choruses of his compatriot’s name.

Kevin De Bruyne returned after his 149-day injury absence (Getty Images)

They were bracketed together again when De Bruyne, with a perfectly weighted chip, picked out Doku with a cross and he dispatched a half-volley. Each had made it look easy and ultimately it was for City. Their defence of one of their many trophies began comfortably as they extended Pep Guardiola’s 100 per cent record at the Etihad Stadium in the FA Cup: 12 games, 12 wins and with 51 goals scored.

There were plenty of performances to enjoy: Matheus Nunes, summoned earlier than expected when Manuel Akanji was injured in a challenge that brought the Huddersfield debutant Alex Matos a booking, shrugged off sickness to produce one of his most influential displays in a City shirt, capped with a couple of delectable touches. Mateo Kovacic was excellent, too, playing a part in three goals if, typically, scoring none. The 18-year-old Jacob Wright clipped the bar on his debut with a shot that offered echoes of Foden.

If a subdued start suited Huddersfield, City broke clear with two goals in five minutes, added three more after the break and offered evidence of a gulf in class between teams separated by 38 places. One is targeting the Champions League, the other trying to stay in the Championship.

Phil Foden has starred for City in the absence of De Bruyne (Getty Images)

City started to pull away when Kovacic found Alvarez with a reverse pass, the Argentinian’s low cross probably was not intended for Foden but the Mancunian intercepted it anyway and dispatched a half-volley. It took Foden into double figures for the season earlier than ever before; he was to add an 11th goal before his afternoon was over.

Before then, a stretching Alvarez applied the final touch after Nunes burst into the box and found Rico Lewis with a cutback. He picked out the World Cup winner with a low pass; his shot appeared to enter the net in slow motion.

Erling Haaland is yet to return for the champions (Getty Images)

The third goal followed De Bruyne’s arrival and may have been designed to give him a perfect comeback. After a delightful touch from Nunes, Oscar Bobb’s chipped cross could have been aimed for the Belgian. Instead, a deflection off Ben Jackson meant the defender was debited with an own goal.

The fourth required no such fortune. Foden’s second was placed perfectly into the bottom corner from 20 yards after Kovacic laid the ball off to him. Doku’s first goal in two months followed.

Huddersfield, meanwhile, were left to rue two near-misses. Neither would have changed the outcome but each would have delighted the 6,000 travelling fans from Yorkshire. At 3-0, Sorba Thomas perhaps should have reduced the deficit after a mistake by Ruben Dias. Instead, Stefan Ortega saved his shot. City’s second-choice goalkeeper proved defiant again when the January signing Bojan Radulovic cut inside and rifled a shot. There was no debut goal for him, though there was encouragement for Huddersfield. And for City, the sight of De Bruyne back and the knowledge Haaland is to follow poses the question if, once again, they will become unstoppable in the second half of the season.

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