Man City keep 'quadruple' pursuit alive as everybody wins in throwback FA Cup tie at Newport County
NEWPORT, South Wales -- As Newport's players soaked in the applause at full-time, Pep Guardiola circulated the Rodney Parade pitch until he had shaken hands with each and every one. He had an extra word or two for Padraig Amond -- the striker who had, for a tantalising minute or so, given the League Two side a vision of the impossible. In the end Guardiola could afford to be generous with his sentiments and Manchester City, with the most fiendish of banana skins avoided, retain their dream of a "quadruple" for now.
"I said to the players afterwards: 'I want to thank you,'" Guardiola said in his postmatch news conference. "Because I am the most proud to win this kind of game. They were serious and I think every Manchester City fan should be so proud of this generation of players."
His meaning was clear. City could have buckled here -- just as Leicester City and Middlesbrough had when faced with the ferocious South Wales atmosphere and relentless approach of Mike Flynn's side. Spurs had been held to a draw here a year ago, too, and if City's band of superstars had approached this tie with any element of complacency, then they would have been the next to receive a bloodied nose.
In the event it was Joe Day, the Newport goalkeeper, who suffered that particular indignity, taking Leroy Sane's angled drive smack in the face and then watching in horror as the ball dropped into the net and gave City their 51st-minute breakthrough. Guardiola clenched his fist upon realising the ball had gone in; his players celebrated behind the goal at length and, in those few moments, the significance of this game to City was made obvious.
The Newport manager, Flynn, had said before the game that a win for his side here would be the biggest FA Cup shock of all time. Nobody, not even multimillionaires who can quickly turn their minds to the glamour of the Champions League and a tie with Schalke 04, wants that black mark against their name. Guardiola certainly did not and paid the event due deference with his team selection: Sergio Aguero was the only fit first-teamer not to travel and the players who started, including David Silva, Riyad Mahrez, Sane and Gabriel Jesus, have form for shredding Premier League opponents at will.
It was their least experienced player, though, who dominated the conversation at the end. Phil Foden was making only his 11th start for City and scored two fine solo goals, first beating Day to double City's advantage and then, immediately after Amond's delicate 88th-minute lob had raised the roof, averting a grandstand finish by sweeping upfield and scoring again. "He was almost impossible to mark," Flynn said afterwards. "He has such a big career in front of him. He's going to be huge."
Foden's mastery of a situation unlike any other in his young career was another element of satisfaction for Guardiola. "He is ready," was the City manager's conclusion as he reflected how the 18-year-old had needed to embroil himself in "long balls, second balls, fighting". City had the stomach for all of that and, while Mahrez's goal in stoppage time perhaps flattered them, it is why they came out on top.
That said, it was never an easy afternoon. There is something old-world about Rodney Parade, which Newport share with two rugby teams. It is a throwback to a time when football atmospheres were raw, visceral, a little chaotic. The noise was, for long periods, almost overwhelming; the stands begun to pulsate a full half-half hour before kickoff, with "Manchester City, we're coming for you" among the most popular refrains.
Newport did exactly that, winning the 50/50s in the first 25 minutes and having their chance to take the lead. It took a cat-like reflex save from Ederson to claw away Tyreeq Bakinson's 14th-minute header and City, who would not have been human if the din and the scarred, bobbly pitch had not needed some adjusting to, wobbled at times amid a barrage of direct balls and long throws.
"Football is not always [about] playing the biggest stages," Guardiola said. "[The players] had to adapt and it can only help us be a better team. We can play at home against Chelsea and win last week, and then the performance here. This kind of game helps a lot [to show] that we can handle the challenges in front of us."
That explained his sense of pride. His players had never once given any impression that they were bigger than the occasion. After the game they invited Newport's team into their dressing room, a simple touch, but one Flynn believed reflected the attitude they had shown all afternoon. "He's shown us respect with the team they put out, he's shown the FA Cup respect and he's shown his own fans respect," Flynn said of Guardiola.
The lingering impression was that everyone could depart a winner: City navigating a unique challenge to please their manager; a bold Newport side keeping the tie alive until the dying moments; the tournament itself producing the kind of vibrant, full-throttle occasion through which it has made its name.
"I'm delighted to keep going in this incredible, prestigious competition," Guardiola said. Talk can be cheap in football, but he and City had both shown that they meant it.