Manchester City's season-defining week gets off to best possible start at Middlesbrough

Pep Guardiola will mark his first season in English football with a return to Wembley, where he won the Champions League with Barcelona in 2011.

The Manchester City manager will have more troubled afternoons than Middlesbrough could muster. Guardiola and his players cantered to the capital and an FA Cup semi-final place.

That did not stop the delight or the celebration afterwards, but a goal in each half, from David Silva and then Sergio Aguero did not tell the story of a one-sided game at the Riverside Stadium. Only wayward finishing and an excellent display from Brad Guzan stopped a rout. By the finish, those players in blue were queuing up to extend the two goal margin.

CIty’s lead came early, and it was remarkably simple. Yaya Toure lifted the ball down the right handside, to Pablo Zabaleta, who fired a low cross into the heart of the home penalty area. Raheem Sterling, its intended target, missed the ball and in doing so allowed it to carry through to David Silva and the Spanish forward stabbed the ball past Brad Guzan with the outside of his left foot. The clock read two minutes and eight seconds and Middlesbrough’s noisy supporters gulped. Their side had scored just nine goals all year before the visit of Guardiola’s men but the FA Cup had offered solace during that run. That at least offered hope. Indeed all of their victories in 2017 (not to mention seven of those nine goals) had come in the competition.

The decisive goal for the visitors would come, but not until midway through the second half. Before then it was largely one way traffic, but the home side could reflect on two opportunities that had caused consternation. Midway through the first half, Grant Leadbitter’s left wing corner found the head of Rudy Gestede and Claudio Bravo in the City goal could only parry the ball to his left, where it struck Zabaleta on the goal line and the visiting captain hacked clear.

The aerial route looked the most likely to unsettle Manchester City and in the 37th minute Marten de Roon crossed from the right this time and Alvaro Negredo, on for the injured Gestede headed powerfully and Bravo parried then saved.

That was as troubled as City would be.

Just past the half hour mark, Sterling’s low cross found Leroy Sane but the finish, from close range, was weak and easy for Guzan. Silva would do the same, in the 38th minute, with Guzan this time saving to his left. The lead should have been doubled again in the 42nd minute. Kevin de Bruyne’s right wing free-kick was perfect for Toure but the free header went narrowly wide and the player berated himself for the miss.

The second half became an onslaught. There was simply no respite for either Karanka or his team. It was simply a matter of time until the game clinching second came. In the 48th minute Toure again chipped a ball down the right, De Bruyne crossed, Sterling missed it and Silva smashed over the crossbar. Guzan then tipped an Aguero clipped shot from a Sterling cross onto the post and seconds later Zabaleta shot wide. Sane was denied by the feet of the Middlesbrough keeper in the 62nd minute and two minutes later Guzan was again at full stretch, this time to tip a Silva shot around his post. 

By now it was relentless.

Sane’s curling, left footed shot was tipped away by Guzan until finally, in the 67th minute, the same player crossed from the left and Aguero stole in ahead of Fabio to finally beat Guzan.

The chances kept coming. Aguero saw a shot parried by Guzan, the Middlesbrough goalkeeper then stopped from Silva and then in the 80th minute Sterling cut inside Ben Gibson and through he had scored with a left foot shot, only for Guzan to deny City once more, this time to his left.

That had Guardiola sinking to his knees, but victory was still his and he will return to Wembley.

Middlesbrough (4-1-4-1): Guzan; Fabio, Bernardo (Fry 51), Gibson, Barragan; Clayton; Traore, de Roon, Leadbitter (Ramirez 66), Stuani; Gestede (Negredo 26).

Subs not used: Valdes, Fischer, Forshaw, Husband.

Manchester City (4-1-2–3): Bravo; Zabaleta, Stones, Otamendi, Clichy; Toure (Fernando 86); De Bruyne, Silva; Sterling, Aguero (Iheanacho 90), Sane (Nolito 70).

Subs not used: Caballero, Kolarov, Delph, Fernandinho.

Referee: Mike Dean

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