Fourth-tier Cheltenham Town came within minutes of one of the great FA Cup shocks before Manchester City scored three late goals to win an absorbing fourth-round tie 3-1 on Saturday.
Alfie May looked poised to write his name into the competition’s folklore when he pounced to put his side ahead in the 59th minute at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium.
Cheltenham, 72 places lower than City in the standings, were holding on and edging towards a fairytale win but reality returned when Phil Foden equalised in the 81st minute.
Three minutes later Gabriel Jesus put City in front and Ferran Torres added a cruel third with the last kick.
Some say the romance of the world’s oldest knockout competition has been diluted in recent times.
But this tie had everything apart from, sadly, a baying crowd because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were incredible goalline clearances, near misses, throw-ins launched like grenades and even a five-minute delay in the first half as fireworks exploded above the stadium.
In the end it was a relieved Pep Guardiola whose side’s 10th successive win in all competitions set up a last-16 tie away to Championship high-flyers Swansea City.
“We came here with humility and had the quality to make the difference,” Guardiola said.
“They used their quality in the box, they are taller and better than us there and we showed clips on how to solve it. It is difficult to control that.”
For Cheltenham manager Michael Duff it was a case of what might have been.
“I’m incredibly proud. The players they brought on from the bench and the way they celebrated the goals tells you something. They know they’ve been in a game. They’ve done that to better teams than us,” he said.
Guardiola made 10 changes to the side that beat Aston Villa in City’s last Premier League game but his starting side still looked fearsome with the likes of Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Benjamin Mendy and Fernandinho all included.
Jesus almost gave City the lead inside the opening minute when he tried to dink a shot over home keeper Josh Griffiths.
But Cheltenham were far from overwhelmed and posed plenty of problems at the other end with their direct style.
Home skipper Ben Tozer produced an incredible goalline clearance to somehow keep out Mendy’s thunderbolt while at the other end May forced a near-post save from City’s American reserve keeper Zack Steffen.
Foden wasted a good chance and Griffiths made good saves from Torres and Mahrez.
Tozer’s enormous throw-ins had unsettled City all night and when he launched another one into the mixer just before the hour mark it caused chaos and the ball squirmed through to May who prodded the ball high into the net.
It was the first goal City had conceded in around 500 minutes.
Foden, City’s outstanding player, rescued them with a controlled volley from substitute Joao Cancelo’s deep cross for his ninth goal of the season.
When Jesus finished from close range from Fernandinho’s delivery, Cheltenham’s gallant attempt was over.