As comfortable, efficient and simple victory as could have been hoped for. There was an impressive persistence about City’s play, a vibrancy in attacking areas and enough of a clinical touch, but Stoke were lacklustre opponents, utterly lacking in bite, fight or ambition. They are a combative, fierce unit at home yet on their travels, a meek, tepid side who had the look a beaten team from the start.
After the pulsating encounter at the weekend against Norwich, this was just what Roberto Mancini would have wanted. It was a professional display from the Blues, reminiscent of many occasions from last season when sides parked the bus at the Etihad, but with touches of class and intent, City had more than enough to coast to the three points. Goals from Pablo Zabaleta, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero – in that order, too (ring any bells?) – secured the victory and maintained some element of pressure on Manchester United at the top of the table.
It was a strong team performance, all the different units linking up well which sadly has not been the case throughout the season. At times, we have conveyed the impression of separate entities – defence, midfield, attack – but yesterday there was a togetherness about our play, a tempo which was kept constant and a desire to break down potentially difficult visitors. Gareth Barry, as he always is, was masterful in his central midfield role, providing a balance and dynamism, combined with his effortless reading of the game and purposeful passing. He really is someone who City fans and players appreciate and even though those who don’t watch the Blues question his impact, he is an essential cog in this team.
In front of him was the tireless, outstanding Sergio Aguero who, after a slow, injury-hit start to the campaign, has really kicked on in the past month or so. His fondness for dropping off the opposition defence, controlling the ball, turning and running at them is terrific, his ability to glide past defenders at pace an absolute joy to watch. Also a major threat when looking for the ball over the top, he must be a nightmare to play against and it has to be hoped that his hamstring injury sustained late on is not serious. He is our best all-round striker by a distance and he will be vital to our chances this season.
James Milner’s impact on the game was key, his regular tenacity and energy supported by an end product. Crucially, he offered a threat out wide, an element that has been lacking in play at times this campaign and his presence on the right strecthed Stoke’s backline, creating more space in the middle and providing a stream of crosses into the box. It was an impressive performance from the man who, despite his showing on the right yesterday, I’d like to see move into the centre whilst Yaya Toure is away with the Ivory Coast.
At the other end of the pitch, Joleon Lescott was recalled in place of Matija Nastasic to partner Vincent Kompany, perhaps after our concerning vulnerability to set-pieces against Norwich, and also to combat Stoke’s physicality with the former Everton man’s height and aerial prowess. In truth, such was the limited threat posed by the Potters, Lescott had a very comfortable afternoon’s work but he showed he is still an excellent defender if not the most assured with the ball at his feet. His authority alongside our captain was just what we needed and although Nastasic can expect to feature again very soon, it is not a finished battle in defence. We have healthy competition there and that quality in depth can only be beneficial.
Opposition View: Stoke were pitiful yesterday. Usually such a resilient and battling side, they were poor beyond belief, showing no fighting spirit and none of their normal ebullient self. As many sides do against City, they sat deep but with Aguero’s running into the channels causing all sorts of problems for Huth and Shawcross, they looked completely at sea and were indebted to our poor finishing and Asmir Begovic for keeping them in the game so long. It was a remarkably meek surrender from them and one which contrasts markedly with their form at the Britannia Stadium.
As for the Blues, Watford are the next visitors to Manchester in the FA Cup at the weekend, an opportunity surely for Mancini to rest a few stars and give others a chance to impress.