Just as Cheltenham Town of League Two sniffed one of the biggest shocks in FA Cup history, two goals in three minutes turned an exhilarating tie on its head and earned Manchester City passage to the fifth round. City were made to sweat after a long throw helped Cheltenham take a surprise lead through Alfie May, but late goals by Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus punctured Cheltenham’s hopes of recording the mother of all upsets before Ferran Torres allowed City to breathe easy in the final seconds.
With seven minutes to play, moments after Foden had equalised by gracefully converting João Cancelo’s perfect cross, it spoke volumes that a pernickety Guardiola was still fretting on the touchline, pedantically arguing that Ben Tozer, the Cheltenham captain who heroically led his team, was trying to steal a few yards before unleashing his not-so-secret weapon: that monstrous and now infamous long throw. The reason Guardiola was ruffled was because Cheltenham had already prospered from it, May scoring after nipping in ahead of Benjamin Mendy, one of 10 City changes.
Nevertheless, this was a total mismatch: City’s squad was assembled at a cost of more than £563m, compared with a Cheltenham team comprising eight free transfers, two loanees (including the tricky Finn Azaz) and a £10,000 signing in May, a livewire from start to finish whose fervour drew special praise from Guardiola. City’s galaxy of superstars, as the Cheltenham manager Michael Duff described them in midweek, arrived as the sun set on Cleeve Hill, a picturesque backdrop on the cusp of the Cotswolds more synonymous with the Cheltenham Festival. Bookmakers would have given sizeable odds of an upset here but Cheltenham, 72 places below a City team that have now racked up 10 straight wins, ensured a bumpy ride.
“I don’t think we deserved to concede a third, but I’m incredibly proud,” Duff said. “The players they brought off the bench and the way they celebrated the goals probably tells you something. We said to our players: ‘Can you make a mark on the game in a positive way?’ Pep and his players will definitely know they’ve been involved in a half-decent match. It was an amazing performance. Maybe we’ve stepped out of the racecourse’s shadow for five minutes.”
Guardiola had joked that Cheltenham would not leave any beers in the bar that doubled up as the away dressing room but did depart Gloucestershire with a bottle of red, courtesy of Duff. “It wasn’t the normal red wine I buy,” said the Cheltenham manager. “But we’re back to work on Monday, because we’ve got to prepare for Oldham at home [on Tuesday]. We’ve got to go and kick on in the league now. All of the fanfare, all of you guys [the media] and the fancy advertising boards are going to disappear, so we’ve got to kick on.”
Tozer’s preposterous goal-line clearance to deny Mendy an early screamer set the tone for a gripping contest. Duff acknowledged everything would have to go in their favour if they were to have any chance and Tozer’s superhuman effort to head Mendy’s bullet strike off the line after Tommy Doyle’s cross was only half-cleared seemed a good omen. Mendy’s wry smile said it all.
Fifteen minutes before kick-off the public address announcer issued a polite reminder that extra time would be played in the event the score was level at 90 minutes. At the time it seemed a touch optimistic – Duff whooped his side’s first effort on target – but City were made to suffer and eventually wilted. When they fell behind, it inevitably stemmed from a mammoth long throw. Charlie Raglan and Will Boyle helped the ball on and May reacted quickest to poke in.
Guardiola wore a look of disgust. Moments earlier Jesus, freed superbly by Foden, passed up a golden chance when his shot kissed a post and the City manager was soon deep in conversation with his assistant Rodolfo Borrell, devising an escape plan. In the end, it worked. Ilkay Gündogan and Rúben Dias arrived to give City more thrust and another substitute, Cancelo, laid the ball on for Foden to strike before Fernandinho’s pass allowed Jesus to power in. Then Torres got in on the act in stoppage time to tee up a fifth-round trip to Swansea. But it was far from comfortable.
“We learn to suffer, being there, being there and in the end, the quality makes the difference,” Guardiola said. “We know exactly what happens in this type of competition all around the world. We knew how tough it would be. Every [Cheltenham] throw-in was more important than a corner or free-kick. They were completely alive. That is why the FA Cup is nice – everyone can be punished.”