City scrapping for success
Preston North End 1-3 Manchester City
On a weekend where draws provided something approximating to FA Cup shocks, Manchester City supplied a surprise of their own by beating lower-division opposition.
It is starting to become a habit on a cup run played exclusively against Championship opposition, whether Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton or, now, Preston North End. Yet the last three seasons have brought results that tend to be more associated with City, embarrassing exits at the hands of Doncaster, Chesterfield and Oldham in the domestic cups.
The result would suggest they overcame Preston with ease, though the scoreline was rendered distinctly flattering by a high-class volley from Stephen Ireland in injury-time, somewhat at odds with much of the football that had preceded it.
More characteristic was what was effectively the decisive goal, scored by arguably the worst player on the pitch. When Michael Ball's long throw and Bernardo Corradi's flick-on caused rather unnecessary confusion in the Preston box, Georgios Samaras' rather lame shot took touches off Liam Chilvers and then Matty Hill and bobbled past Andy Lonergan.
It was a triumph of sorts for Manchester City's maligned strike force, involved in all three goals. Yet Samaras had what might politely be described as an 'off day'. The Greek has often been described by Stuart Pearce as a raw diamond; far from becoming the jewel in City's crown, there are those who would contend he is getting worse.
His partner Corradi, meanwhile, was unexpectedly influential without adding to his three goals for the season. Though they may have owed victory to the inspiration of the Italian, Pearce's four main strikers have a measly eight goals in 84 Premiership games between them this season; while service, particularly from the flanks, is often negligible, the most significant sale for Pearce actually took place before his appointment: that of Nicolas Anelka, who has never properly been replaced.
Whether David Nugent is among the next generation of potential City saviours remains to be seen but his performance, including his 14th of the season, amounted to a comprehensive audition for Premiership football. Whether or not Preston attain promotion, the England Under-21 striker seems sure to be plying his trade in the top flight next season.
He showed pace in abundance and emerged triumphant in a sprint with Micah Richards, which few do, and has sufficient aerial ability to win headers in a crowded six-yard box. There were a couple of solo runs that evoked memories of his wonderful goal against Crystal Palace. And there was the seventh-minute strike to put Preston ahead.
It had not looked City's day when, attempting to deliver a second-minute set piece, Joey Barton kicked the corner flag. Then, in practically Preston's first attack, Danny Pugh's inswinging corner was met forcefully by Michael Ricketts and, though Nicky Weaver did well to parry his header, Nugent was on hand to fire in the rebound.
The rehabilitated Ricketts' contribution was shortlived, but almost resulted in two goals. 'We think he's dislocated his shoulder,' said the Preston manager Paul Simpson. 'He'll be out for a big few weeks. I'm not going to be foolish enough to say it cost us the game but it didn't help us.'
When Ricketts sprinted on to Paul McKenna's through ball, it took a second fine block from Weaver. Once again, it fell to Nugent but this time Richard Dunne was in the way of a well-struck drive.
The goalkeeper, chosen ahead of the Swede Andreas Isaksson, justified Pearce's faith. 'The coin landed on heads,' deadpanned his manager, discussing the selection process. 'It was the hardest decision I've ever had to make as a manager, to be honest. Nicky's form over the season slightly edged it on this occasion.'
Then Corradi, hitherto unimpressive, produced a wonderful piece of skill that brought City's equaliser. Accepting Hatem Trabelsi's pass, he swivelled to volley against the post. It fell to Michael Ball to drive City level, also with the aid of an upright. 'He's unloaded one,' said Pearce. 'He's got some great quality with his left foot.'
His post-match interviews are a reason why Pearce is becoming a manager who draws different responses from neutrals and City supporters. The wider footballing public recall the iconic left-back, equipped with the attitude fans want to believe they would have possessed had they been given the chance. His self-deprecating wit and endearing honesty in interviews may endear him to a wider audience, but not his home crowd.
'We've got a scrap in the Premiership and a scrap in every round of the cup we play in, so every game is vitally important for this football club,' Pearce added. 'We're not good enough as a football team to prioritise.'
He is right. They are not. That too many of his signings can be questioned is a reason why. At least Ball appears a notable exception, though Samaras is part of the evidence for the prosecution of Pearce.
Both, however, scored to turn the tie City's way and as long as they remain in the FA Cup, Pearce's critics will be muted and his team's inconsistent league form obscured.
MAN OF THE MATCH: David Nugent - There is a reason why the Premiership scouts have flocked to Deepdale, and Nugent showed why he is valued at £6 million. Michael Ball was arguably City's outstanding performer.
PRESTON VERDICT: They produced much of the neat football in display with Paul McKenna particularly influential in midfield. However, they may be losing form at an unfortunate time of the season and, Nugent apart, their Championship play-off rivals have more firepower.
CITY VERDICT: In many respects, it was a poor performance. 'We played some reasonable football at times, At other times, we could have played better,' admitted Pearce. They were disjointed more often than fluent and made too many errors, even if most were not punished. It is 26 years since they reached an FA Cup final, and they will need to improve to end that record.