No Pep, no problem. Manchester City may have had to come through a major Covid-19 outbreak this week, which sidelined their manager among others, but they still managed to ease past Swindon Town to secure passage to the FA Cup fourth round. Four goals from Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan and Cole Palmer made this the formality that many expected, despite a fine consolation from Harry McKirdy that sent the County Ground home happy.
The only upset of the night was the City team sheet. Despite having seven players in isolation, stand-in Rodolfo Borrell was able to name a side that included 10 internationals and Premier League title winners plus one of the best young players in the country. Having expected a much-changed XI of fringe players and youngsters at most, Swindon’s supporters welcomed the visitors onto the pitch with a round of jeers and a sarcastic ‘Who are ya?’ They would soon find out.
Barely five minutes had passed before the in-form Joao Cancelo sent a tantalising low cross into his compatriot Bernardo, only for it to be swept over. The Portuguese would make no mistake the second time around. Palmer, the only real novice in the City line-up, danced around left-back Ellis Iandolo and sent another drilled cross into the six-yard box. The deftness of Bernardo’s movement off the shoulder of Swindon’s Dion Conroy that the finish was simple.
The breakthrough had arrived inside a quarter-of-an-hour and after a failed attempt by the fourth-tier outfit to play out from the back. That was always unwise against one of the best pressing units in Europe, if not the world, but they did not learn from their mistake. Louis Reed’s attempt to control a pass from his goalkeeper Lewis Ward with a backheel could be described as ambitious, at best. Jesus pounced on the heavy touch, playing a one-two with De Bruyne that put him through on goal to apply the finish.
Swindon’s manager Ben Garner immediately made his thoughts known from the touchline. It is difficult for top-flight rivals to beat City at their own game, let alone those sat 5th in League Two. Playing out from the back only felt like playing into City’s hands. Though there was another perspective: what if Swindon’s best chance of an upset was by being themselves? And when the likelihood of progressing is so slim, is it not better to stay true to your principles?
That was one of the more interesting talking points of the evening, because for all the romance of this competition, despite its history of underdog triumphs and derring-do, this was already over as a contest. To Swindon’s credit, they threatened twice before the half was out: first, when Zack Steffen misplaced a pass and caught Harry McKirdy’s attempt at lob, then when Kyle Walker sent a Jordan Lyden cross over his own bar. Make no mistake though, City were comfortable and Swindon were repeatedly undone by their own hand.
The third came partly through Gundogan’s mastery of a dead ball but also Swindon’s poor positioning on a set-piece. A free-kick from 25 yards should never swing outside of a defensive wall and go in at a near post but this one did. Ward came close to sprawling across his goalmouth and keeping it out but ultimately paid the price for not moving his teammates a few inches over to their left. The Swindon goalkeeper would redeem himself a few minutes later, at least.
City were handed a chance to score their fourth from the penalty spot with Bernardo going down, though the spot-kick was saved easily by Ward. Jesus, the taker, has now missed more penalties for City than he has scored – five to four – and this was one of his worst, with a broken run-up and a tame stroke towards the bottom left-hand corner. Riyad Mahrez is the only trustworthy taker in Guardiola’s squad and is currently away at the Africa Cup of Nations.
City did not need that penalty to ensure progression, though there was a brief glimmer of a fightback with McKirdy’s goal. A lesser-spotted loose touch by Rodri allowed substitute Jonathan Williams to speed away and switch the play right to an onrushing McKirdy. The angle was tight, the finish was difficult, the goalkeeping could have been better but all that mattered was that the County Ground had something to celebrate for all of about four minutes.
Palmer cut those celebrations short with a demonstration of why, though a late bloomer, he is considered the outstanding talent to come through City’s academy since Phil Foden’s promotion to the first team. The finish was as difficult as McKirdy’s but more spectacular, struck high and into the top left-hand corner of the goal despite the narrow angle. It was a neat way to cap off an evening when all had something to celebrate but City, as expected, progress.