David Moyes, meanwhile, had just taken his Sunderland side to the London Stadium – newly inhabited by West Ham and far from happily – to be on the receiving end of a 1-0 defeat that left the Scot rooted to the bottom of the Premier League.
On the day they were given permission to expand the capacity of a home that is finally starting to feel like one, West Ham treated a sell-out 60,000 crowd to yet another memorable night under Moyes’ stewardship as they completed a back-to-back double over the Manchester clubs in a competition that was supposed to matter little in a season all about Premier League consolidation and a European adventure.
Having gone with a lineup that more than hinted at the Carabao Cup’s reduced standing on West Ham’s recently expanded list of priorities, leaving Declan Rice and Michail Antonio at home and rotating wherever squad depth allowed, it wasn’t until shortly after the hour-mark that Moyes, with the game still goalless and sensing an unexpected opportunity, sent for the cavalry.
A triple change, replacing a largely ineffectual forward line with the guile and energy of Said Benrahma, Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals, did little to affect the pattern of play as none of the trio particularly sparkled in the half-hour that remained.
Still, it spoke of a mid-game shift in mentality – ‘we’re still in it, so we might as well win it’ – that seemed to completely alter the complexion of the fixture, alerting both players and the crowd to the very real possibility of an upset against a labouring City, who had won the last four editions of this competition.
It gave the home side a momentum that, from the moment Mark Noble led from the front to smash home the first of what would be five flawless home penalties, was only ever accelerating in one direction. Phil Foden’s miss seconds later was the only one of the shootout, with Benrahma eventually beating Zack Steffen to seal passage into the quarter-finals.
From the ninety minutes that preceded the shootout, Moyes will not have learnt a great deal that he did not already know – both good and bad.
That Andriy Yarmolenko is not Antonio, for instance. Give him a chance in front of goal and he may well take it (though history would suggest that’s much more likely in Ukrainian yellow than claret and blue), but in no other way does he mimic the qualities of the all-action, bullying, bustling Jamaican, providing no sort of outlet as the home side were penned in for much of the first-half.
Likewise, the fact that Moyes cannot afford to lose either Rice or Tomas Soucek for any prolonged period of time. The jury remains out on Alex Kral, given his absences, but the prospect of Noble’s ‘one last job’ becoming anything more than a part-time one becomes more unnerving with every appearance, club leader and legend that he is.
But there were also reminders of more substantial depth that bode well for a campaign that may now still be running on four fronts into the New Year. Even as Vladimir Coufal made a welcome return as a late substitute, Ben Johnson showed why what might have been an injury crisis at right-back in recent weeks has manifested as an inconvenience at worst.
And in Alphonse Areola, who made a string of saves of great variety – reactions to deflections, close quarter-parries, blocks with his feet – he has a backup goalkeeper better than many who start every week in this league.
That the Frenchman got nowhere near any of City’s spot-kicks (Foden dragged his wide) was an irrelevant footnote on another night to revere for a side currently producing them on a near-weekly basis.