Kevin De Bruyne returns, Man City survive penalties to advance to Carabao Cup semis
LEICESTER, England -- Three points from the King Power Stadium on Manchester City's penalty-shootout win over Leicester City in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup.
1. De Bruyne returns in style, holders City survive and advance
It was another penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup for these two sides and it was the same result as City squeezed through, barely.
Aro Muric making just his third appearance was the hero as he saved from James Maddison and Caglar Soyuncu as City went through 3-1 on spot kicks.
They weren't the greatest penalties but the 20-year-old Kosovo international kept his calm to steer City through to the last-four as they continue their defence of their trophy.
It was a hardly a memorable shootout and Raheem Sterling probably gave the young keeper the biggest hug after his horrible Panenka spot kick floated over the bar.
City had looked in control for the opening 70 minutes with the returning Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings for the reigning cup champions.
Pep Guardiola's side haven't missed him terribly this season but, somehow on just his third start of the season, he showed he can still add even more to City.
The Belgium midfielder took just 14 minutes to dance his way past young midfielder Hamza Choudhury and fire a 20-yard strike that beat Danny Ward at his near post.
It would be expected that De Bruyne would be rusty after two injuries that have forced him to miss the bulk of the season. But he looked effortlessly back to his best as he retook the role of creator-in-chief with Berando Silva and David Silva left out of the squad.
He glided all over the pitch, leading the high press and working dangerous moments -- whether it was through short, sharp interchanges with Sergio Aguero and Phil Foden or a long crossfield ball to Brahim Diaz with his wrong foot. His goal was the standout moment of quality in the first half.
Both managers had decided to make plenty of changes to their starting lineups, resting players for the busy Christmas schedule, but it was City that started the most lively, pushing the home side back, ultimately culminating in the Belgian's opener.
Leicester were slow to threaten City's makeshift defence featuring 17-year-old debutant Eric Garcia, although Demarai Gray forced a good save from rookie goalkeeper Muric before the interval.
But there was precious little for their fans to enjoy and it was the travelling fans who were enjoying the night out with a noisy chorus of "Mourinho, we want you to stay" following the Portuguese's sacking from Manchester United earlier in the day.
Claude Puel finally threw caution to the wind in the second half and the Foxes finally equalised in the 74th minute when Marc Albrighton brilliantly smashed home Wilfred Ndidi's perfectly-weighted pass.
2. Present, future look bright for City
It's ironic that on a day when Manchester United's uncertain future is firmly in the spotlight that their bitter rivals should show how promising their future is. More than half their starters for the quarterfinals were under the age of 24 with four of them still teenagers.
Guardiola has been sometimes criticised for giving some of his youngsters a chance too early but he wants to slowly introduce them into the first team and will only hand them Premier League and Champions League opportunities on merit.
Phil Foden, 18, has already earned that honour and Guardiola has no made secret of his admiration for the Stockport-born City fan. He again sparkled against Leicester, working excellently in tandem with De Bruyne and his quick passing and smart first touch are reminiscent of the Belgian.
Goalkeeper Aro Muric's rise to cup starter was expedited by the serious injury to Claudio Bravo but he has hardly put a foot wrong in his three Carabao Cup appearances and was again strong in his biggest test so far at the King Power Stadium.
Eric Garcia, who was snapped up from Barcelona's famed La Masia Academy, has made steady progress in his time in Manchester culminating in his debut here. The 17-year-old impressed in three starts on the preseason tour to the United States and would have been involved in the squad earlier but for an injury that kept him out until November.
Guardiola's decision to start Brahim Diaz was perhaps the last throw of the dice from the City boss as he tries to convince the young Spaniard to stay. The 19-year-old is still yet to sign a new contract with his deal running out at the end of the summer and Real Madrid ready to pay £10 million for him when the January transfer window opens.
Unlike former City winger Jadon Sancho, who was jettisoned from the first-team squad when it became clear that he wasn't going to sign a new deal, Diaz remains part of Guardiola's thoughts. The youngster believes he is ready to play regularly now and it's difficult to disagree after another lively performance against Leicester.
3. Leicester miss their chance
Claude Puel prioritised the trip to Chelsea rather than a chance of winning a place in the Carabao Cup semifinals and the possibility of drawing Burton, a team from League One in that round.
It's an odd decision and one that wasn't particularly welcomed by many Leicester fans. Leicester are a club that knows how to dream after their incredible title success of 2016 and it doesn't make sense to settle for the stability of mid-table mediocrity to sacrifice giving it a real go at more glory.
Puel's side aren't in any relegation danger at the moment, despite three games without a win in the Premier League, and a victory here would have been a much-needed boost.
It would seem more likely to come here against a mix-and-match City side at a lively King Power Stadium than away to a resurgent Maurizio Sarri side at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Puel disagrees. He made seven changes from the side beaten by Crystal Palace with only Harry Maguire, Christian Fuchs, Wilfred Ndidi and Demarai Gray keeping their places, while striker Jamie Vardy, rested, didn't even make the bench.
The Frenchman made a similar call at the same stage last season and City needed a penalty shootout to overcome the Foxes and go on and win the competition then. The players that played left everything on the pitch but after they ultimately came up short, it is hard not to imagine what could have been had Puel called on more regulars, particularly Vardy, in the starting lineup.