Well, they got there in the end. Manchester City eventually securing a much-needed first Premier League win at Stoke, and finally ended endless tweets about never winning without Yaya Toure. They took time to get motoring however, but in the end coasted over the line to secure a first league win since New Years’ Day.
The evening had an air of desperation about it, with little chance of City emerging winners in the title race – and yet it was so nearly the case.
The line-up led to more groans as the two Ferns were paired once more, critics ignoring when they have actually played well (away from home) together to decry picking a pair who have instead never played well together. What their inclusion (well Fernando’s anyway) shows is the lack of depth in the squad right now. Frank Lampard has faded from sight now we have him for the season, but has been most effective off the bench anyway, not as a starter. It was good to see Milner included, the game demanded it, though I thought Navas might start too. Yet again, Pellegrini infuriated by tinkering with the back four, Kolarov and Mangala coming in. They did ok, but constant changes in defensive personnel are surely contributing at least partly to shaky performances.
Anyway, City started quite brightly, Aguero scuffing a shot when he should have done better, the commentators suggesting Fernandinho got in his way, but as the Brazilian was running onto the ball, perhaps it should have been left for him. Either way, after that, the team regressed, turning in a 15-20 minute shambolic display as Stoke pressed and found confidence in abundance as City panicked. Hart spooned a shot wide, then failed to hold onto a shot that was thankfully disallowed, correctly, for offside, saved another shot, and City were all over the place. Moses was giving Zabaleta the run-around, meaning Milner being shifted to the right to protect him.
In the middle of all that, after Hart spooned that shot wide, Peter Crouch was allowed a free header, and there were strong calls for a handball by James Milner close to the line. Replays weren’t totally conclusive, but it seems that the ball did deflect onto his hand, so it was a stroke of fortune for City as whilst it didn’t appear deliberate, if Mason had seen any handball I’ve no doubt a penalty and red card would have followed, as I’ve seen such decisions against City players too many times. Still, karma for Peter Crouch once dribbling the ball into our net basketball-style. I hold grudges for a long time.
Elsewhere, and it didn’t help that David Silva appeared to be completely invisible to Lee Mason, fouled pretty much every time he got the ball, with little protection from the referee. Nevertheless, City did improve after the shaky period, Fernandinho wasting a glorious opportunity when through on goal, passing wide of Nasri, then Aguero chased a Milner hoof up field, brilliantly shook off another robust Stoke challenge before firing into the far corner through Bardsley’s legs.
Unfortunately, City soon relinquished their advantage. A great cross it may have been from the right, but Kompany let Crouch get away from him, Hart fatally hesitated, though I doubt he would have reached the cross, and the ball was headed into the back of the net. Not all goals have to be someone’s fault, but neither the captain or goalkeeper came out of the move well, and Hart’s hesitation left him powerless to position himself to attempt a save. Perhaps we should look more at why he had so much time to put the cross in in the first place, but it was a great cross, so fair enough.
At the time though, it was no more than Stoke deserved, until City seemingly retook the lead on the stroke of half-time. Except that they didn’t, after a comical occurrence that didn’t have me laughing, but instead cursing for the entire half-time break at the magnificent typical-city-stupidity of it all. Thank god City won this game, because if this had cost us points, and our league title challenge, I’d have needed therapy.
Anyway, after a wonderful Fernandinho pass, and a Silva squared ball, we all know what happened next. Or judging by my Twitter timeline at the time, it seems not. So to state obvious facts, Aguero did hit the ball with his hand, so the goal was rightly disallowed. He also moved his hand upwards, so whilst the yellow card was harsh, I can see why it was given – referees tend to give handballs a caution by default anyway, not that they should. As for the claims that it was going in anyway, definitely, but it was just one of those crazy impulsive actions. It was bizarre, ridiculous, stupid, and thank all the non-existent gods in the world that it proved irrelevant in the end. Still, if you date Maradona’s daughter, then it’s bound to rub off on you.
And it was irrelevant because Manuel Pellegrini managed to fire up the troops for once at half-time, and they came out firing. They were helped by a Stoke side that left space available, and the chances piled up. Kolarov shot when he should have squared to Aguero, Fernandinho did likewise with a man square, then Milner finished off an exquisite set of passes on the right with a brilliant header from a chipped Nasri cross that thankfully evaded Zabaleta. Shame about the goal celebration though.
After that, City opened their legs, so to speak, and Silva’s determination won him a penalty, which should also have led to a red card as I thought he would have had a goal-scoring opportunity (maybe he was just a fraction too wide). No matter, we actually got awarded a penalty (Aguero possibly had a shout for another in the second half), and Aguero scored his second of the match, before somehow injuring himself just as he ended his barren spell.
There were more chances, sandwiched around Nasri’s wonderful goal, most notably when Dzeko spurned a one-on-one (again with a City player square, Lampard), and City threatened every time they went forward. Stoke threatened little, apart from a soft penalty claim late on, and a free kick that Moses fired over, after a non-existent David Silva foul.
A much-needed win in the end and an international break to follow by the end of which our two cup-winning Ivorians will have returned.
Substitutions weren’t crucial on this occasion, with Dzeko replacing Aguero, every City fan holding their breath at the prospect of another muscle injury for our star striker, but he seemed comfortable enough and sat on the bench, so hopefully it was just a precaution. Off came Silva and Nasri too, on came Lampard and then Navas came on, hit a defender with his first cross, and that was that.
Man of the Match? Hard to say – Nasri perhaps, Milner probably, but Silva shone for me because he was battered for much of the game and just kept going and going and jinking and jinking and was pure class. The two Ferns put in a better showing but let’s not be totally fooled by the result. Our defence was very shaky, against a team decimated by injuries, and whilst it was a nice step in the right direction, we now must hope it is not another false dawn. Mangala still needs to sort his feet out.
Unfortunately a late Chelsea goal, a rather fortunate deflected shot (the stuff champions are made of etc etc) meant the gap was not cut – we’d have taken the gap staying the same before the matches kicked off, but it feels disappointing to have happened this way, as after all we were only minutes from cutting the deficit. Ah well, there’s still a long way to go, and we saved a point late on last weekend, so, swings and roundabouts. What’s more, Milner could have been off in the first half, or even after a rather robust challenge in the second half (not that I am saying he should have been), so it was a satisfactory night in all.
And the match showed the difference when playing a team that don’t defend en masse, perhaps partly explaining our mixed home form compared to our excellent away form. The test will come when we meet another defensive team, which hopefully Newcastle won’t be.
City have now scored in their last 19 away games, have 28 points from 13 away games this season and we have the bizarre scenario of preferring away games to home ones. Strange days.
Trevor Francis – dear oh dear. Another Grade F co-commentator.
I haven’t watched the post-match press conferences, but I will take a wild guess that Mark Hughes felt cheated, that James Milner should have been sent off twice, Stoke should have had seven penalties, Aguero is a diving cheat, and Stoke can’t compete with our billions. Correct?
HOW DID LUKAKU MISS THAT??!!