Watching John Stones make defensive mistakes while playing for England in the Nations League finals in June, Port Vale striker Tom Pope took to Twitter to say he’d “love to play … every week” against the Manchester City center back.
“I’d get 40 a season!” wrote Pope, who described Stones as “soft” and “weak.”
Well, he got his chance when fourth-tier Port Vale was drawn to play City in the third round and both players were selected to start.
And Pope did go on to score, although he wasn’t being marked by Stones when he headed in a shock equalizer at Etihad Stadium to cancel out Oleksandr Zinchenko’s deflected opener.
Sergio Aguero, youngster Taylor Harwood-Bellis – who deflected in a shot from Stones – and Phil Foden added more goals for City as the holders made a successful start to their title defense with a 4-1 win.
It was a gentle warmup for City ahead of a derby match against Manchester United in the first leg of the English League Cup next week. United had a much more grueling test, against Wolverhampton away, and fought to a 0-0 draw that necessitates a replay on either Jan. 14 or 15.
It adds to the fixture congestion at the start of 2020 for United, which has to play five league games, a two-legged League Cup semifinal and potentially three FA Cup matches from Jan. 1 to Feb. 1.
Marcus Rashford struck a shot against the crossbar soon after coming on as a substitute, while Wolves later had a goal by Matt Doherty ruled out for handball.
Whether Villa and Brighton will be too disappointed with their FA Cup exit is open to question.
Survival in the lucrative Premier League is their first priority and that is far from guaranteed, with both teams within four points of the relegation zone.
A semifinalist last year, Brighton didn’t even win one game in this season’s competition after losing 1-0 at home to second-tier Sheffield Wednesday because of Adam Reach’s 65th-minute winner.
Villa is now four years without a victory in the FA Cup after losing 2-1 at another second-tier opponent in Fulham, which scored long-range goals through Anthony Knockaert and Harry Arter. Arter’s stunning 74th-minute winner came two minutes after he came on as a substitute.
Watford’s resurgence under new manager Nigel Pearson in the Premier League – with three wins in the last four games to ignite its survival hopes – looked like being transferred to the FA Cup when the team took a 3-0 lead after 34 minutes against third-tier struggler Tranmere.
Then the early-season version of Watford returned. After conceding goals in the 65th, 78th and 87th minutes, the hosts had Argentina midfielder Roberto Pereyra sent off in the 89th and ended up scraping a draw.
Another team taken to a replay by third-tier opposition was Newcastle, which also squandered a halftime lead and drew 1-1 at Rochdale.
Aaron Wilbraham, a 40-year-old striker whose first career goal came in 1998, scored Rochdale’s equalizer against Newcastle, which has not gone beyond the fourth round since 2006.
A replay was the last thing Newcastle or Watford needed after playing four games in 11 days over Christmas and the new year. Newcastle, in particular, was hit hard by injuries during the festive period and picked up two more at Spotland, with scorer Miguel Almiron (groin) and Yoshinori Muto (hip) forced off in the second half.
EASY FOR LEICESTER
Leicester, in second place in the Premier League, was among the top-flight teams to make wholesale changes for the cup but it didn’t stop Brendan Rodgers’ side beating second-tier Wigan 2-0 thanks to an own-goal and a strike by Harvey Barnes.
Burnley, Southampton, Norwich and Bournemouth also avoided upsets with some ease to book their places in the fourth round.
Burnley beat third-tier Peterborough 4-2, with striker Jay Rodriguez scoring twice, Southampton beat second-tier Huddersfield 2-0 and Norwich won 4-2 at Preston, with Irish striker Adam Idah scoring a hat trick.
Bournemouth beat second-tier Luton 4-0.
Premier League teams entered the FA Cup at the third-round stage and there was another top-flight matchup set to take place on Sunday: the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield.
A one-minute delay preceded all third-round games to raise awareness of a mental-health campaign, “Heads Up,” which is spearheaded by English Football Association president Prince William.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80