When Tottenham Hotspur travelled to Marine in round three of the 2020/21 FA Cup, it was hard to find similar ties they’d faced in recent times to get a feel for who might play and how they’d get on. For Manchester City, cup ties against lower league opposition are ten-a-penny.
Their trip to The Jonny-Rocks Stadium will be City’s 15th FA Cup tie since the start of 2018, but just six of those matches have been against fellow Premier League clubs. What’s more, the top-flight sides they’ve faced have been Burnley (twice), Brighton, Watford, Newcastle and Arsenal.
City should feel embarrassed that they’ve only won the FA Cup once in that period considering the lack of elite opponents they’ve come up against. It’s no surprise that they’re red hot favourites to lift the famous trophy this season, particularly as one of their two major rivals is guaranteed to see their interest in the competition end at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Saturday 17:30 – Cheltenham Town v Man City
The bad news for Cheltenham manager Michael Duff is that Pep Guardiola doesn’t even particularly rotate his starting XI for cup matches against teams from the lower divisions.
Take City’s 3-0 win over Birmingham City in round three. Aside from having Zack Steffen deputise for Ederson, you wouldn’t be surprised to see their team sheet used for a league match. Sergio Aguero, Phil Foden and both Silvas started against League Two Port Vale last season, while the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling were in the XI for the trip to Newport County from the same division the year before.
Even if Guardiola was feeling charitable for this match, which isn’t very likely even though his side play again on Tuesday night, the Robins’ recent form has been dreadful. Their extra time victory over Mansfield Town is the only win they have to show for their last nine matches in all competitions. They had triumphed in seven of their previous eight games prior to their recent poor run, so they’re having a strange old season.
Cheltenham aren’t accustomed to this stage of the cup either, having last got this far in 2005/06, when they lost 2-0 at home to Newcastle. There’s no question which way this tie will go, but there’s no value to be had in simply backing City to win either. They’ve won their last two FA Cup ties against League Two opposition 4-1 both times, so back the visitors to win with over 3.5 goals in the match.
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One consistent aspect to Duff’s time in charge of Cheltenham is that his team almost always score on their own patch. The Robins have only failed to find the back of the net in eight of his 50 home league matches at the helm, and it occurred three times in his first four home games when he took over mid-season in 2018/19.
Clearly facing Manchester City, who’ve conceded just six goals in their eight away matches this season (the fewest in the Premier League) is a far sterner test than hosting a League Two outfit. But, then City will most likely be fielding a back four who have rarely if ever played together before, and a goalkeeper who spends most weeks on the bench.
They’ve only kept two clean sheets in their last five FA Cup ties which have been away against lower league opposition too. Steffen conceded at both Arsenal and Chelsea earlier this season, so Cheltenham must be nailed on to score at least once if he can be beaten that easily.
With the Premier League side certain to rotate their starting XI at least a little, it can be tricky to know who will get the nod from Guardiola. However, as Riyad Mahrez is the only outfield player at the club who has started all five of their matches in the domestic cups this season – and has played the full 90 minutes on four occasions – it would be a surprise if he is not heavily involved here.
As he’s one of the seven players to score a Premier League hat-trick this season and it’s perhaps surprising that the Algerian has only started 10 of City’s 18 matches in the competition. As Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan are the only players to have opened the scoring for City more times in the league this season, and neither started in the previous round, Mahrez looks the best bet to set the ball rolling on Saturday evening.
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