NOTTINGHAM // Manchester City’s recent history in knockout competitions has been pockmarked by ignominious exits to lower-league sides. Briefly, extraordinarily, this threatened to be the most embarrassing of all.
In the six seasons before Roberto Mancini’s appointment, they suffered six such defeats, to Oldham Athletic and Doncaster Rovers, Chesterfield and Sheffield United, Nottingham Forest and Brighton. A seventh setback beckoned before Edin Dzeko opened his City account in emphatic fashion.
It means City, taken to a second match by Leicester in the last round, require another replay. If they are to reach Wembley, it will be by the long route. Yet when elimination beckons, that is the preferable alternative. As Mancini said: “It is better to play another game.”
A 10-time winner of the Coppa Italia, he is taking its English equivalent seriously. That is not enough to guarantee a swift and easy passage, however. “This is the FA Cup,” the Italian added, philosophically.
The differences between Notts County and City are vast and varied, but epitomised by the two goalscorers. Dzeko, the £27 million (Dh157m) buy from Wolfsburg, has brought pedigree at a price. Neal Bishop, who put County ahead, has the unremarkable CV of a journeyman.
He had meandered his way around non-league football, graduated to League Two at 26 and League One last summer. But having played with a purpose, Bishop embellished the biggest afternoon of his career with a goal to bring him to widespread attention. When Alan Gow whipped in a corner, he glanced a header past Joe Hart.
At that stage, it was no less than County deserved. But City rallied. David Silva brought his velvet touch to a pudding of a pitch, releasing the overlapping Micah Richards. His cross brought a wonderfully controlled finish from Dzeko, the Bosnian providing a first explanation for City’s long pursuit of him. “I enjoyed it,” Mancini said. “I think he needs time to understand English football better. He needs another four or five games.”
It may be deemed an auspicious strike but to focus solely on Dzeko would be unfair to County. It is to their credit that the 59 league places separating the two teams never appeared an unbridgeable chasm. They performed with resolve, unity and quality.
Collectively, they displayed a doggedness that mirrored the approach of Paul Ince, their manager, in his playing days and drew the compliments of an old adversary in many a midfield battleground, Patrick Vieira. “I’m proud of my players,” Ince said.
“Patrick said: ‘You’ve got a fantastic team spirit.’ They showed they had the belief to beat Manchester City. This team believe they can beat anybody. We played well; we stopped them playing the way they should.”
Even after Dzeko levelled, Lee Hughes could have won it in the final few minutes.
“We deserve another crack at them,” Ince added. They do. While an early Yaya Toure shot was repelled by Stuart Nelson, who later tipped Gareth Barry’s sweetly-timed volley over the bar, City created too little for too much of the time. Dzeko’s rescue act was welcome, his signs of form useful at a time when City are likely to be without the injured Adam Johnson for a further three months.
“It is a big problem because he is an important player,” his manager said.