Disappointment came in many forms for Neil Warnock. There was the obvious, predictable setback suffered by Cardiff City, eliminated from the FA Cup as they became the latest team to discover Manchester City were too good for them. There was the irritation caused by the failure of his tactics as the Championship side failed in their attempts to man-mark the Premier League leaders.
There was a different kind of frustration, too. A pragmatist had surprised before kick off when he nominated the purist David Silva as his favourite player. Warnock was denied a meeting with his unlikely hero, the Spaniard not figuring. Instead the Silva to excel was Bernardo, who thought he had scored a stunning goal and did set up Raheem Sterling’s 19th of the season.
Instead the two men Pep Guardiola did name in the attacking central midfield roles played pivotal parts in the opening goal. It came in the eighth minute and helped ensure there was no shock.
Ilkay Gundogan, fresh from drawing a save from Neil Etheridge, was fouled by Joe Ralls. Kevin de Bruyne, correctly guessing the Cardiff wall would jump, guided his free kick under them. It was cheeky, but not entirely original: the Belgian scored against Bournemouth in similar fashion last season.
It took De Bruyne to 10 goals this season, rendering him the fifth City player in double figures. That shared commitment to scoring suits Guardiola’s ethos. It was also important when their principal scorer began on the bench.
Sergio Aguero was rested with Bernardo Silva operating in his stead. False nine got a false goal. The Portuguese’s beautiful strike flew in off the underside of the bar. It was disallowed because Leroy Sane, who did not touch the ball, may have been offside. Referee Lee Mason followed his assistant’s advice. Guardiola was confused and he was not the only one.
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It highlighted the current confusion in English football. There was a litany of complaints when VAR was used to make correct decisions in Liverpool’s defeat to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. There was no video assistant referee for this game, when technology would surely have meant the goal would have stood. It illustrated the element of human error which has led to television footage being used in other matches, especially as another mistake followed.
Joe Bennett was fortunate to escape a red card for a cynical, dangerous challenge on Sane when the German was in full flight. He eventually was dismissed for fouling substitute Brahim Diaz, but Sane had departed earlier: Aguero replaced him for the second half.
Before then, the visitors had doubled their lead. Silva produced the right sort of reaction to being denied a goal. His roving brief took him to the left wing and he delivered a delightful cross. An unmarked Sterling met it, heading in to end a drought – by his standards – of four games. He would have scored a second but for Sean Morrison, sliding in to deny him an open goal after the winger had skipped past the goalkeeper, and then Etheridge, with a fine save after De Bruyne pierced the offside trap with a wonderful pass.
A third goal would not have flattered them as the gulf in class was apparent. Cardiff sought one. They had almost levelled when Claudio Bravo fumbled Junior Hoilett’s well-struck long-range shot, recovering to grab the ball before it crossed the line. They threatened at the mid-way point in the second half, Anthony Pilkington hooking a shot over the bar seconds after his arrival and Hoilett’s rising shot just clearing the woodwork.
But with Vincent Kompany excelling, Cardiff could not hurt Manchester City with direct football. Or anything other than Bennett’s rough-house tackling.