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NICK SZCZEPANIK'S PRESS VERDICT: MANCHESTER CITY

7 April 2019

Paul Hazlewood
Nick Szczepanik reviews the media's coverage of Saturday's game.

The Sunday paper reports of Albion’s 1-0 defeat by Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final concentrated, as you would expect, on City’s continuing pursuit of an unprecedented quadruple.

But there was also plenty of praise for the Seagulls’ contribution to the event, both on and off the pitch.

Rob Draper of the Mail on Sunday wrote that “the increasingly agitated figure of Pep Guardiola on the touchline told its own story. As did the official man-of-the-match award to Anthony Knockaert. City looked rattled.

“The half-time substitution of Kyle Walker was for back trouble, Guardiola said: not because he had been extremely fortunate to survive a VAR review of a misdirected head butt at Alireza Jahanbakhsh and thus looked a red card waiting to happen.

“This was one of those rare days when City looked uncertain of their superiority. From a point of complete assurance in the opening exchanges, incrementally Brighton disrupted their lines of passing and, in those frenetic final moments, as Brighton threw in their crosses and Raheem Sterling countered, only to be denied by Matt Ryan, City would have gladly taken full time.

“By the end of it all, City were playing keep ball by the corner flag to run down the clock. That was the measure of Brighton's achievement. Of course, it means little in tangible terms. But the quadruple chasers had been in real battle for the spoils.”

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Danny Taylor of The Observer, voted sports journalist of the year at last week’s Society of Editors Awards, admitted that Albion had kept City quieter than most opponents.

“By the standards Manchester City set themselves these days, it is fair to say this was not the most shimmering or elegant performance from Pep Guardiola’s team. When, for example, was the last time they managed only four shots on target against an opponent?

“Brighton’s fans had turned up with their streamers, balloons and an old-school level of excitement that perhaps is no longer evident for City these days. They outnumbered City’s fans, out-sang them and stayed back at the end to applaud the efforts of the losing team.

“Yet there was a reason why some of the bookmakers rated the chances of an upset at 30-1 and, sadly for Chris Hughton and his players, they never had the wit or invention in attack to recover from the early goal.

“The problem for Brighton was that if they committed too many players forward in search of an equaliser, they always knew it would leave them vulnerable on the counterattack.

“Overall, perhaps they were not ambitious enough, especially in the final quarter of an hour. Yet they will also reflect on what happened in the 32nd minute and wonder whether a red card for Kyle Walker might have dramatically improved their chances.”

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Barney Ronay, in the same paper, went into more detail about that incident. It is fair to say he is not a fan of VAR. He wrote:

“With 32 minutes gone Kyle Walker shepherded the ball out near the City goal. Alireza Jahanbakhsh seemed to stand on his leg as he fell over. Walker sprang up and pressed his head to the Brighton man’s forehead in that strange, oddly sensual footballer’s embrace.

“As ever the question here, with heads docked, was which of these nuzzling stags would make the mistake of applying a fatal forward shove. This time it was Walker, although it was more a kind of downward stroke with the brow, a cheese grater effect.

“At which point, enter football’s great dunderheaded experiment with the idea that certainty can be introduced to a game of marginal calls. From his bunker Paul Tierney, hot foot up the motorway from Southampton on Friday night, judged it to be a yellow card.

“There will be those who feel Walker should have been sent off. In isolation it looked like an outlawed duck of the head, a strict liability offence in freeze frame, never mind the provocation. But then, who really knows? The answer, of course, is: no one knows.

“There is no objective truth, no definitive answer. Other than the fact poorly applied VAR is the same as poor refereeing, only slightly worse because it takes longer. All we really have are opinions, and endless wearying debate.”

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But he added: “Brighton ran hard and defended with discipline. They might have equalised early in the second half. Either side of the break there was a feeling of one team, City, trying not to give too much of itself away; and another feeling that slackness and pushing into it, with that underdog scent faintly in their nostrils.”

Martin Blackburn of The Sun wrote: “City had been in complete control of a largely uneventful first half - but the Seagulls raised their game after the break. Shane Duffy headed the ball down and with Ederson in no man's land, Laporte was forced to hoof the ball over his own bar.”

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Sam Wallace, the Telegraph chief football writer, reported Albion boss Chris Hughton’s reaction to the Walker incident.

“’In my opinion, it was a red card,’ the Brighton manager said. ‘We ask the players to be honest. Alireza didn’t make a meal of it. We would have seen in the past players going down clutching their head, rolling on the floor.

“’I’ve see the action [by Walker] and in numerous circumstances that action would have got somebody a red card. There was sufficient force.’

“He was, he said, ‘even more disappointed’ that it was a VAR decision – proof that the new system will not please everyone.

“Guardiola made much of the threat of Brighton at set-pieces – ‘they are massive, so tall’ – and in those circumstances, Aymeric Laporte was outstanding. In time added on at the end of the game, Brighton had a free-kick that they threw everything at and instead City turned it into a counter-attack from which Raheem Sterling should have scored.

“It was tough for Brighton, who might have anticipated defeat but would have hoped that City would need their A-game in order to achieve it.

“’I know they had chances and half-chances with the quality they have,’ Hughton said. ‘But I’m struggling to think of a clear chance. And I don’t think that would have happened to them many times this season’.”


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