Manchester City advanced to the fifth round of the FA Cup for the sixth consecutive season under Pep Guardiola on Saturday, when they saw off runaway Championship leaders Fulham 4-1.
Goals from Ilkay Gundogan, John Stones and Riyad Mahrez saw Guardiola’s side recover from an early Fulham goal, but it was the second-half introductions of two City youngsters that put the biggest smiles on sky blue faces.
James McAtee – fresh from signing a new long-term contract in the week – and Liam Delap both came on with little more than 10 minutes of normal time remaining, yet in the dying embers of the game they managed to show exactly what they can do .
McAtee was typically neat and composed on the ball, linking up well with the likes of Bernardo Silva and Gundogan and looking every bit the typical Guardiola-style midfielder everyone hopes he will become.
Delap was the opposite, putting himself around in a way Guardiola later described as “a typical British striker”. Even though his cameo from him-during which he was denied a late headed goal by the linesman’s flag-was very un-City like, it was refreshing as it showed just what City has missed since Sergio Aguero departed at the end of last season.
Guardiola described the 19-year-old frontman as a “killer” after the game, but it is not just his goalscoring instinct that evokes memories of an Argentinian legend from City’s past.
During his post-match press conference, Pep offered a fascinating insight into how Delap has been training after months sidelined through injury.
“Every training session, against Aymeric [Laporte]against Ruben [Dias]against John [Stones]Nathan [Ake]; he fights, and most of the time wins the duels… or breaks his nose or something like that!”
City have plenty of players who are willing to put their bodies on the line – you only need to see Rodri’s incredible block against Liverpool or Dias’ hilarious breakdancing moves against Leeds to know that – but since Pablo Zabaleta left the club in 2017, City have not had a player who possesses the unique combination of not being a typical Guardiola player but being willing to get hurt in the line of duty.
Ask any City supporter to describe Zabaleta and the chances are that an image of a bloodied and bandaged right-back charging down the flank will start to form in their mind.
Of course, it would do Zabaleta’s undoubted technical quality a huge disservice to suggest that his strengths lay solely in the ugly side of the game. He is one of the best full-backs of the Premier League era, a feat impossible to achieve through pain and suffering alone.
However, it is undeniable that his sheer determination and doggedness were his most endearing qualities, something that Delap also showed against a scared-looking Fulham defence.
If the young striker continues to bring his all-action training style into matches, then perhaps City’s doctors will need to stock up on head bandages again and get a few more ‘Delap 48’ shirts printed on matchdays.
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As Guardiola admitted after the game, nobody knows what the future will hold for Delap, especially given the signing of Julian Alvarez in his position and the likely pursuit of Erling Haaland. Yet the manager was adamant that Delap holds the cards.
“If you fight in every training session, it will pay off in your career,” he said. “What have I [Delap] has to do is work for himself, do what he is doing and be fit. Be patient and in the right moment for the quality he has he will get what he deserves.”
Regardless of how much playing time he sees going forward, one thing is for certain: if Delap continues to show the fight and rugged dedication that evokes memories of Zabaleta, there will be a new fans’ favorite at the Etihad Stadium.
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