De Bruyne deputy Foden saves Man City from FA Cup humiliation at Cheltenham

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Phil Foden Manchester City Cheltenham FA Cup
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The Premier League side were nine minutes away from a shock fourth-round exit when their in-form England ace sparked a dramatic late comeback

Manchester City avoided being on the receiving end of what would have been the greatest shock in FA Cup history thanks to one man – Phil Foden.

Pep Guardiola’s side were nine minutes away from suffering an embarrassing fourth-round exit at League Two Cheltenham Town when their in-form England international cancelled out Alfie May's opener, paving the way for late goals from Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres to seal a 3-1 win.

The significance of defeat would have been difficult to comprehend.

Non-league sides have beaten teams from England's top flight in the past but rarely has there ever been such a bigger disparity in resources between two opponents in the competition's 150-year history.

City started with eight full internationals, with another eight on the bench, underlining that this is an expensively-assembled squad built to challenge for the Champions League, not toil against a club whose record signing cost £50,000 ($68,000).

Yet the impossible almost happened when May pounced on a loose ball in the 58th minute to bundle home an unlikely opener that stunned the Premier League side.

However, it was boyhood City fan Foden who spared his club’s blushes, almost single-handedly lifting his team out of the trouble they had got themselves into.

Foden may only be 20, but he has seen his side suffer giant-killings, most notably against Wigan, who stunned City in the FA Cup final in 2013 before upsetting them again three years ago.

But he wasn't going to let City suffer a similar fate here; not on his watch.

Manchester City FA Cup 2020-21

With many senior players rested and Kevin De Bruyne ruled out through injury, Foden was comfortably City’s most creative attacking force and led from the front.

His perfect passes had set up Jesus and Riyad Mahrez for gilt-edged opportunities, but the Brazilian hit the post, while the Algerian was denied by Joshua Griffiths, who performed sensationally in the Cheltenham goal.

And with panic starting to set in, Foden took on the responsibility of getting the equaliser himself, drifting into the box to volley home Joao Cancelo’s cross to the far post with the kind of composure so sorely lacking among his fellow forwards.

Jesus, though, finally took a chance three minutes later to completely settle City's nerves before Torres scored in injury time to add a flattering gloss to the scoreline – but the victory owed everything to Foden.

His crucial goal makes him City’s leading scorer this season, with nine, meaning he has already surpassed his tally for the entirety of the 2019-20 campaign.

He now looks perfectly poised to play a pivotal role in City's latest pursuit of a quadruple.

When Guardiola needed a leader to step forward to avert what would have been a humiliating defeat for the former Barcelona boss, Foden obliged.

With De Bruyne potentially out for six weeks, meaning he could potentially miss as many as a dozen games, Foden showed he can be a more than able deputy for City's creator-in-chief.

Against Cheltenham, the versatile attacker started as a number 10 and never stopped creating chances even though so many of his team-mates were having an off-day.

City, of course, will face bigger names and higher quality opponents than Cheltenham if they are to challenge for the Premier League title or win a first Champions League, but Foden's fighting spirit at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium conveyed a desire which is hard to replicate.

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“I’m playing well at the moment but you can easily have a bad performance, so I'm just trying to stay at the top of my game and playing like this,” Foden told the BBC after the game.

Guardiola has managed Foden carefully but the midfielder is now one of his most influential players.

Indeed, that City are still in four competitions is almost entirely down to Foden. And, on this form, he is set to play an even more prominent role in ever more significant challenges in the coming weeks and months.

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