By Jason Mellor
Having finally been knocked off their perch at the summit of English football, Manchester City were clearly in no mood to relinquish a second piece of precious silverware in the space of three days.
It’s getting on for two-and-a-half years since Pep Guardiola’s side lost a domestic knockout tie – well done for remembering the exit to Wigan in this competition at the start of 2018 – and a 10th consecutive FA Cup victory secured for the holders safe passage to the last four and with it their latest visit to Wembley, albeit one that will take place behind closed doors.
A second-half goal from Raheem Sterling added to a 12th of the season from Kevin De Bruyne before the break ensured City will start strong favourites when facing Arsenal next month for a place in the final against either Manchester United or Chelsea on the first day of August, 10 weeks after its originally scheduled, Covid-19-delayed, date of late May.
When Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool visit Manchester this week, City will form a guard of honour for their more than worthy successors. For much of an uncomfortably one-sided sixth round tie, Newcastle’s function was more or less the same, as they were left to admire the mesmeric passing patterns spun by vastly superior opponents who condemned them to a first home defeat since New Year’s Day.
Fabian Schar did at least get close enough to Gabriel Jesus to foolishly apply both hands firmly to the City forward’s back, a reckless and un-necessary intervention well spotted by referee Lee Mason, who had little hesitation in awarding a penalty.
De Bruyne soon had further reason to celebrate his birthday as the Belgian midfielder, in his first FA Cup appearance since the 6-0 dismantling of Watford in last season’s final, broke the deadlock by calmly sending Karl Darlow the wrong way from the spot. “It’s nice to score on my birthday,” the 29-year-old reflected. “We’ve had a few problems from the spot this season but I’ve scored a couple now so I’m happy to take the responsibility.
“We were sharp right from the start and put Newcastle under pressure. It was a good way to bounce back from the loss to Chelsea, and we should have scored more in the end.”
Such had been their dominance, with Darlow twice saving from Sterling in addition to both Jesus and Riyad Mahrez wasting clear openings, it was scarcely believable that Newcastle had held on for so long before surrendering parity eight minutes before the end of a half where they had shipped 15 chances and ‘enjoyed’ less than 20 per cent of the ball. Sustained possession was simply an unattainable goal.
Shortly before conducting a socially distanced, one-man semi-final draw, Alan Shearer joked that things would all change for the better after the break with his hometown club attacking the Gallowgate End, and with it the advantage of the significant St James’ Park slope.
It proved a forlorn hope from Newcastle’s record goal-scorer. In mitigation, Steve Bruce’s side were at least competitive for most of the final 45 minutes, as the marks sported by Aymeric Laporte from his bruising battle with Andy Carroll will attest.
Shorn of the restorative effects of a vocal full-house of 50,000 Geordies to roar them on, to their credit, they should have levelled. Dwight Gayle had scored within 90 seconds of entering the fray in the draw with Aston Villa last week, but this time with his first touch after coming on for Carroll, the un-marked substitute woefully spooned a centre from Allan Saint-Maximin over the bar from six yards.
Stung into action by such temerity from their opponents, City swiftly upped the ante to settle matters as the final 20 minutes approached. From a Phil Foden pass Sterling, who would have emerged with the match ball with a little more composure in front of goal, displayed all his qualities as he cut in from the left to caress a low curling effort beyond Darlow into the bottom corner from the edge of the area.
“There were lots of positives,” Guardiola said. A trio of knockout honours still beckon the League Cup holders this season, and the Spaniard added: “It’s great to be in the semi-final and back at Wembley again. To be honest, it’s been a bit of a struggle for focus in the Premier League with Champions League qualification almost done, but of course with the cups it’s a little bit different.”
Bruce was in little doubt as to the importance of Gayle’s glaring miss. “We tried to stay in the contest for as long as we could,” the Newcastle manager reflected. He added: “We were too passive for long spells, and it’s a blatant mistake from us for their penalty, and then of course, Dwight’s chance was a big turning point. It would have been a hell of a cup tie had that gone in.”