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Stones gets serious as Man City have last laugh in FA Cup victory

22:30 GMT 05/01/2020
John Stones Taylor Harwood-Bellis Manchester City 2019-20
Tom Pope scored in Port Vale's 4-1 defeat after a mocking tweet from months earlier that put unwanted focus on the England defender

The last thing John Stones wanted to see during Man City's  FA Cup clash with Port Vale was Tom Pope wheeling away in celebration.

The League Two striker had tweeted in the summer after an England defeat at the Nations League that he would score 40 goals a season if he faced the Manchester City defender on a regular basis.

Stones was out of the picture when Pope muscled out rookie centre-back Taylor Harwood-Bellis to head in a 35th-minute equaliser, but still all eyes drifted to the England defender.

Shortly after the game, Pope doubled down on his tweet saying: "I'd just like to say I was completely wrong and bang out of order to say I'd score 40 a season..... it's more like 50."

Stones didn’t appear to see the funny side of the attention and didn’t speak to the striker throughout the game, although they shook hands at full-time. Even when the Port Vale players were invited into the home dressing room after the match, he steered clear of his adversary.

"I don't think he's happy,” Pope admitted. “We went in the dressing room after and I spoke to Benjamin Mendy and he said the lads have abused him for weeks, so I think it's played on his mind a little bit. So I don't think he was overly happy, no.

“It was like the Grim Reaper going in, they all ran the other way.”

Stones was making his first appearance in a month since a difficult home Manchester derby defeat, in a season that has been plagued by niggling injuries.

He thought he had at least marked his return by scoring, only for his goal-bound effort to hit Harwood-Bellis on the goal-line and trickle in. That at least did bring a smile to his face when the Stockport teenager informed him he was claiming his first goal for his boyhood club.

And he should be also relieved that in Pope’s more realistic assessment, he was praised as being far better than the striker claimed in his banterous judgement on social media.

“Well you can't get near him,” said Pope, who set a post-war goalscoring record for his club at the Etihad. “I think I had one cross and scored one goal, but that was it.

“He's just so good on the ball, he makes it look easy and it's difficult to press them when you've got 10 men behind the ball, so it's very hard to try and have an impact, offensively, when you've got so many players on the edge of your own box.

“They're different class. That's why they've won the Premier League the past two years and it was a difficult afternoon for us.”

But it’s not the Vale striker that Stones has to win over, but Pep Guardiola. The City boss remonstrated with his defender midway through the second half when he was too slow getting the ball forward, taking the safer option to go backwards. Then, 10 minutes later Stones played a risky ball across his own box that was charged down by Pope, presenting an opportunity for Tom Conlon that he headed off target.

Guardiola has been a huge advocate of his defender's courageous style, famously saying that he had “bigger balls” than anyone in the room at one press conference. But even the Catalan is seemingly getting frustrated that the 25-year-old isn’t progressing as quickly as he would have hoped.

City have only kept two clean sheets in the games Stones has appeared and, of the eight Premier League matches he has featured in, they have lost three.

Fitness problems have been a particular exasperation, with Stones making just 13 appearances this season while he has not played in five consecutive games for more than a year.

Guardiola said ahead of the game that Stones must play regularly if he is to become the truly world-class defender that the City boss thinks he can be. He was not too concerned by the Pope sideshow after the game, instead urging Stones to keep his focus ahead of Tuesday's Carabao Cup semi-final first leg at Old Trafford.

“He was one month injured with not a good history in the past about that so it is not easy,” the City boss said. “It is important is to get minutes, finish well and play good.

“Now it is time to be ready, especially mentally, and not to get injured. That is the most important thing.”

Man Utd are likely to field a strong lineup against City, having rested several senior players on Saturday for their FA Cup stalemate with Wolves.

Stones might just be relieved to be facing the pace and threat of Marcus Rashford, rather than facing the ridicule of a journeyman striker with nothing to lose.