Manchester City’s quest for an unprecedented quadruple carries on into April and will take them to Wembley twice in consecutive weekends. The Carabao Cup finalists are now FA Cup semi-finalists and while City could pocket four trophies in a couple of months, Everton’s wait for any silverware, which dates back to 1995, will carry on for another year.
While they were the most obdurate of opponents, there was something fitting that the pivotal goal in one of their toughest games of City’s campaign came from their possible player of the season. Ilkay Gündogan broke the deadlock before Kevin De Bruyne added a second.
Pep Guardiola parked his policy of using a false nine as Gabriel Jesus, often the scourge of Everton, was brought back among six changes. His No 7 was restored, también. The Catalan had omitted Raheem Sterling from his previous three sides and had not even named him on the bench at Fulham seven days earlier.
After a one-two with Gündogan, Sterling conjured the game’s belated first shot. That it went straight at João Virgínia gave the rookie a comfortable save to ease him into the match.
Everton’s third-choice goalkeeper was in the rare position of making his first two starts for the club against teams from Greater Manchester; the other was Salford City in the Carabao Cup.
City might have been expected to test the newcomer more in the opening stages, but he was afforded plenty of protection as he had a solitary stop to make before half-time. Maybe the fact Virgínia was required to deputise for the injured Jordan Pickford and Robin Olsen was a factor in Everton’s cautious approach.
Carlo Ancelotti ceded control of the centre of the pitch to City, selecting only three midfielders but using a trio of centre-backs to try and block their visitors’ path to goal. His gameplan was based around congesting the centre of the pitch and counterattacking.
Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin took it in turns to pick up Fernandinho when City were in possession, as they often were. En efecto, they had the ball for 87% of the first quarter of the game, but Everton prevented them from doing much with it.
If Ancelotti’s forwards had to feed on scraps, that almost proved a profitable policy. Richarlison latched on to Ben Godfrey’s header and improvised an overhead kick that flew just wide of Zack Steffen’s goal. The American almost created problems for City, beating Calvert-Lewin to André Gomes’ pass but cannoning his clearance into Aymeric Laporte, who had to hastily concede a corner.
It was an illustration that, in an opening half of few chances, Everton contrived to exude more menace. They fielded the taller team and possessed a set-piece threat and when Yerry Mina met Lucas Digne’s corner with a glancing header that Oleksandr Zinchenko had to clear off City’s goal-line.
The second half began with a couple of flickers of Phil Foden’s talent, as he eluded a crowd of defenders in the box, and a particularly wayward shot from Sterling, who hooked a volley some way over the bar, but also the first nervous moment from Virgínia, who missed his chance after a City corner. It did not cost him but City exerted greater pressure, with their captain more prominent. Fernandinho assumed more responsibility for driving City forward, made a forceful run into the Everton box, centred and Sterling’s sidefooted effort presented the first real test of Virgínia. He passed it, flinging himself to his left to tip the shot wide.
Pero, as in the first half, Richarlison’s resourcefulness and elusiveness meant he offered Everton hope of a breakthrough. He directed a half-volley just wide from the edge of the box. Fernandinho offered his appreciation of his compatriot’s danger by muscling him off the ball and collecting a caution, City’s first of the evening.
Guardiola sought to alter the game by introducing Riyad Mahrez and moving Foden back into midfield. It almost reaped an immediate reward. From his new berth in the inside-right channel, the Mancunian fizzed a shot just wide.
Guardiola summoned De Bruyne next, and he duly contributed to both goals. The first was also an indication of how City’s supposedly defensive players assumed more attacking duties.
Aymeric Laporte carried the ball forward from the back, linked up with De Bruyne and unleashed a shot that Virgínia did well to tip on to the bar. But there, stooping to head into the unguarded goal, was Gündogan.
Then two substitutes combined, Rodri releasing De Bruyne, who finished emphatically.