Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
Towards the end of last season, Pep Guardiola was asked what might be left for him to achieve in the game if his Manchester City team completed the Treble. “Score a goal against Spurs away,” he replied. He was joking, right?
City duly beat Internazionale in the Champions League final to touch immortality but here, at last, was the crowning glory. City not only scored their first goal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the sixth time of asking, they also got their first result.
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Previously, it had been five defeats out of five; a bizarre and hard-to-explain sequence. But they cut through the hoodoo to energise their FA Cup defence, with Nathan Aké getting the longed-for goal towards the very end.
The Spurs goalkeeper, Guglielmo Vicario, was at fault. He found himself under pressure from Rúben Dias on a corner from Kevin De Bruyne, whom Guardiola had introduced as a 65th-minute substitute. Vicario wanted a foul but it was not there and, when he punched weakly, Aké scrambled home.
The previous City player to score a goal at an actual Spurs stadium was De Bruyne in September 2015; that takes in the time the London club spent at Wembley while their home was rebuilt.
It looked as though De Bruyne would break the deadlock as City pushed hard in the closing stages. Bernardo Silva and another substitute, Jérémy Doku, shot too close to Vicario and, in between times, De Bruyne had the big chance. Phil Foden robbed Pierre-Emile Højbjerg as Spurs tried and failed to play up from the back and when the ball was worked to De Bruyne, all eyes followed his shot towards the bottom corner. It kept on going past the post and, at that point, it felt as though City would never score. Aké had other ideas.
City controlled the game and they would finish with 18 shots to Spurs’s one. It would have been remarkable if Tottenham had forced a replay and the hard truth for Ange Postecoglou was that his team departed with a whimper. He had wanted to see them impose their game. There is no better measure of progress than to see whether it is possible against the best. It was not, Spurs’s best efforts serving only to keep them clinging on and it was certainly ominous to hear Guardiola’s verdict afterwards.
He can once again feel the desire of his team to win every game. They have done so five times in succession since their victorious return from the Fifa Club World Cup. “We are there,” Guardiola said.
City were there at the outset. They had arrived at 6.50pm, a lot later than they would have liked, their bus having been caught up in the terrible traffic around these parts. But they were straight out of the blocks, subjecting Spurs to something of an ordeal in the first 20 minutes.
They would have been ahead early on had Oscar Bobb not been ruled offside after Vicario had half-saved from Phil Foden and watched the ball trickle towards the line. Bobb touched it over from half a yard but, after a long delay, the VAR upheld the marginal decision. Would the ball have crossed the line without Bobb’s intervention? It looked as though it would have done.
The strange thing about the first half was that for all City’s swagger, their comfort in possession and their pretty patterns, they struggled to create anything clear-cut. Bernardo Silva and Mateo Kovacic had shots blocked and a window into Guardiola’s mood was provided when Josko Gvardiol badly overhit a cross. Guardiola spun on his heels in annoyance. City’s approach play had been balletic.
The home crowd loved it when Micky van de Ven got across to make a thunderous challenge on Foden. But not as much as they did when Pedro Porro threw himself into an important block to keep out a shot from Bobb in the 42nd minute. Rodri and Kovacic had seen efforts blocked in the buildup.
City continued to do their stuff on the ball after the restart, Foden’s velvet touch so easy to watch. And Spurs continued to do theirs without it. Van de Ven drew more wild cheers when he diverted a Julián Álvarez effort behind at the last.
The starting lineups were notable, in part, for the names they did not contain. Postecoglou held James Maddison back, unleashing him only as a 73rd-minute substitute for his first action since a near 12-week ankle injury layoff while De Bruyne kicked his heels too.
Could Spurs offer anything in the final third? There was a pass from Timo Werner that sent Brennan Johnson scurrying through and he was able to get a touch to the ball just as City’s cup goalkeeper, Stefan Ortega, arrived to block. Johnson’s effort was deemed to be on target; it went down as his team’s only shot.
Postecoglou had confidently predicted goals and entertainment beforehand. Surely it wasn’t going to end in stalemate? Aké ensured that it would not.