Manchester City successfully went through one of the toughest tests encountered this season. The one-game duel of the Cup quarterfinals at Goodison Park was a test that measured the moral integrity and resistance capacity of Guardiola’s team in the face of the accumulation of difficulties. Not only sophistication lives this City that enjoys an insurmountable tactical advantage thanks to the flexibility of its steering wheels. Against Everton he showed that he is made of a very hard paste. A material that allowed him to reach the semifinals of the Cup for the third consecutive year and maintain the progression that began in mid-November and that places him as the team that, today, plays the best in Europe.
Everton, who were playing the only prize that remained to be disputed, took their rival to the limit in an exercise of defensive rigor difficult to contemplate when there is no audience in the stadiums to encourage zeal or epic. It became clear that Ancelotti convinced his players to give up the attack in exchange for compressing themselves around his goal. It is not easy to convince footballers to make these kinds of sacrifices, but the Italian coach must have delivered a persuasive speech because they were all used with astonishing solidarity and self-denial in shaping three impenetrable lines. Behind five defenders with two lanes that only deployed punctually, Digne and Coleman, but whose first mission consisted of helping the centrals to prevent Sterling and Foden, the wingers, from making superiorities on the outside. In the middle André Gomes, Allan and Sigurdsson, feverishly glued to Gundogan and Bernardo Silva so that they could never force the centrals to make compromised decisions. Also forced to cover Fernandinho, Richarlison and Calvert Lewin, the points, barely received advantageous passes every time they tried to launch their famous counterattacks.
There are teams that fold back massively but they don’t score as much as they cover. The Everton players, in addition to occupying a position, came with determination to mark each of the opponents who stepped on their area of influence. Faults and frictions spread. City had 75% of the possession but the fluidity to which their players pass the ball was constantly interrupted. The field became narrow and painful for the ankles of Gabriel Jesús, Bernardo and Gundogan, always subjected to the sandpaper of their counterparts’ boots. The game was fought on two grounds: the tactical one, which was a mathematical problem, and the psychological one. For a long hour he gave the impression that no one would win it, but the first to doubt his weapons would lose it. Sitting on the bench, Guardiola rubbed his nasal septum in search of a saving formula while talking to Lillo.
The mathematical problem was encrypted in the distribution of tasks when the City attacked elaborating in rival field. If Ancelotti assigned eight outfield players to defend, Guardiola released seven to attack and protected his goalkeeper with Fernandinho and two centrals. The balance of forces stifled City’s advances but barely allowed Everton to have a set-piece chance, thanks to a header from Mina that Zinchenko took off on the goal line. There was no more because Fernandinho, Laporte and Dias gave a recital of adjustments.
The barricade Ancelotti built began to shake after the hour of the fray, when Fernandinho ventured into the Virginia area in partnership with Sterling. Released by the appearance of an eighth accomplice in the rival area, the Jamaican took a shot that hit the post and the goalkeeper deflected it with his fingertips. It was the first warning that City had decided to jump into the void. Everton’s defense finally broke down in the 83rd minute when a factor more unexpected than Fernandinho came into play. Eymeric Laporte ignored his primary occupation and burst in from behind like a midfielder, added another man to City’s attacking unit, and generated an insurmountable doubt in the local defenders. Overwhelmed by Sigursson, Allen wavered between going or staying with De Bruyne and Holgate, too disciplined, stayed glued to Foden. The French center-back entered the gap and passed the ball to De Bruyne on the edge of the area. With the wall back, Laporte himself finished the play with a forehand shot that Virginia deflected to the crossbar and Gundogan headed in.
De Bruyne, who had just entered for Sterling, was decisive in the 0-1 and made it 0-2 in the last minute of the game, when Everton fell apart in search of an equalizer.
In the other quarterfinal match played this Saturday, Southampton beat Bournemouth (0-3). Chelsea-Sheffield and Leicester-United close the day on Sunday.