City would return to the top of the League on points should they win the late kick off at Stoke. This would be no easy task however as the team would have to accomplish something they have never done in the Premier League era?..win at Stoke. However this season`s City are a far different prospect to even the team of last season, and in the reverse fixture, City won comfortably without Joe Hart having to face a single shot in the entire 90 minutes. If the Stoke fans were hoping for goals they were likely to see them as top shots on target (City with 188) faced bottom (Stoke with 72), but the goals were likely to be against, not for them.
Mancini once again faced the prospect of being without his favoured central defensive partnership as both Kompany and Lescott had tweeted earlier in the day that the game had come to soon for them. The team sheet read as follows: Hart, Zabaleta, Richards, Kolo, Clichy, Yaya, Barry, Silva, Nasri, Balotelli and Dzeko. So Silva plays through his injury and despite being hauled off mid-week, Balotelli starts the game. With Aguero missing training through injury, he was absent from the bench which consisted of: Pantillimon, Kolarov, Savic, De Jong, Johnson, Milner, Tevez and
The game started as expected with City controlling possession easily and stroking the ball patiently around the pitch. But right from the off one thing was apparent. City lacked width. They had the same problem at Chelsea but with Stoke putting all eleven men behind the ball when City were in possession, the lack of width looked like it would cause a real problem.
City were clearly dominant in the opening twenty minutes as Stoke struggled to cope with the pace and movement that the Blues demonstrated but despite this dominance their chances were limited. First Silva shot wide and then Zabaleta also shot wide with a great chance. Shortly after it was Yaya`s turn to fluff his lines as he blazed a shot over from distance.
Controversy was soon to break out as Silva went up for a ball with Dean Whitehead. The Stoke player used his elbow as tool of choice and took the diminutive Spaniard out with a blow to the head. Silva lay prone and bleeding as Howard Webb ran over to make sure the focus was on him. He awarded a free kick to City and rather than issuing a straight red for violent conduct, ‘had a word` with Whitehead, possibly congratulating him. To make matters worse, the Stoke fans actually booed Silva for apparently ‘head butting` Whiteheads elbow. The two W`s, Webb and Whitehead were utterly disgraceful in this incident.
Only a minute later and with different adversaries, the scenario was played out again as this time Shawcross, clearly confused as to what sport he was playing, first attempted to rugby tackle Balotelli to the ground and when this didn`t work, used a Jui-Jitsu face lock to throw his opponent to the ground. Balotelli to his credit did not react, but Mr Webb true to his character, awarded a free kick and once again, ‘had a word`. Two red card offences dealt with in a rather strange manner. The Stoke fans began to boo Balotelli now for his part in damaging the turf when he hit the ground.
Stoke began to fancy their chances as a battered and bruised City were being offered little protection by Howard Red. They began working the ball into better positions and City started to sit deeper as the half wore on. Suddenly though it was City who were on the break and after fine work between Silva and Nasri, it was Dzeko who found himself with a fine chance that he failed to even test the keeper with.
As frustration began to creep into City`s game, Barry found himself behind an advancing Jerome. He tugged the player`s shirt and Jerome went down. Barry must have thought a free kick would be severe if Webb was refereeing fairly. But no, Mr Webb went straight for his card, luckily yellow as shirt tugging is clearly worse that elbowing, wrestling and face locks.
With four minutes of the half left, after clinging on for large parts of the game, it was Stoke who nearly took the lead. Stoke won a corner on City`s left and Etherington swung a wicked cross into the danger zone. The man with the Jui-Jitsu, Shawcross met the ball with a deft header that had Hart beaten and looked goal bound until Zabaleta cleared the ball off the line.
There were no changes at half time as Mancini continued with the same narrow formation that had failed to break down Stoke in the first half and it was City who started the brighter with a couple of half chances in the opening ten minutes.
In the fifteenth minute, after a half chance by City went wide, Begovic cleared the ball upfield with a massive kick. It was met by the head of Crouch who then received a return header from Pennant. With one flick of his massive boots, and without the ball touching the ground since Begovic`s kick, Crouch shut his eyes and let rip with and almighty volley. Whether luck or sublime skill, he will never hit a ball as well in his career and Hart could only leap despairingly and watch the ball beat him hands down and nestle in the top corner. One nil to Stoke, rather undeservingly, but City were making heavy weather of this game.
With a win needed and perhaps recognising the need for width, Mancini withdrew the battered Silva and replaced him with Johnson, sporting new red boots! The red boots hardly helped as Johnson struggled to make an impact down either wing, failing to beat his man so many times it got boring.
As City sought a way back into the game, Stoke used every dirty tactic in the book to stop them. Fouls, diving, pulling and pushing, you name it, they tried it and you could see Mancini`s men become more and more frustrated with the lack of protection from the ref. With sixteen minutes to go, Tevez came on to resounding boos from the Stoke fans. They must have enjoyed booing City players.
Within seconds of Tevez coming on, City were back in the game. Tevez however was not involved. It was Yaya who picked the ball up forty yards from goal. He looked up and with one thought in his mind unleashed a pile driver of a shot. Begovic looked to have the ball covered but failed to shout for it. Shawcross attempted to head clear but merely deflected the ball into his own net. 1-1 and game on.
Mancini then threw on Milner for Zabaleta and City pressed forward looking for the winner, but despite their efforts Stoke held on until the final whistle and indeed nearly had a goal themselves, albeit after the whistle had gone for an infringement. It was clear today that City`s lack of talent on either wing could cost them the title. They simply aren`t creating enough chances and teams have wised up to the passing through the middle. A disappointing result, although the Blues do go back to the top on goal difference.
Joe Hart – 7
A spectator for the most part. Could do nothing about Crouch’s wonder/lucky goal
Pablo Zabaleta – 7.5
Solid defensilvely but criminally guilty of passing when he was free to shoot just 10 yards out. Cleared the ball fantastically off the line to save City’s blushes.
Micah Richards – 7
Had little threat and looked good. Suffered from cramp toward the end.
Kolo Toure – 7
Did his job.
Gael Clichy – 6.5
Couldn’t cross today and found Crouch too much when he went wide.
Yaya Toure – 7.5
The puck of the bunch and capped off his performance with a great goal.
Gareth Barry – 7
Booked for a nothing foul and then disappeared.
Samir Nasri – 7
Tried but nothing came off for him today.
David Silva – 6
Suffered at the hands of some brutal treatment and got no protection off Webb. His shirt is clearly the wrong shade of red to get any protection.
Mario Balotelli – 7
Kicked hit and generally provoked. Kept his composure but didnt get many chances.
Edin Dzeko – 6
Wasn’t really in the game. Had a couple of tame headers in the 90.
Adam Johnson – 5
About as effective as a spider in a bath.
Carlos Tevez – 6
Did nothing to change the game.
Too late to mark.
Roberto Mancini – 6
Not good enough to win the league on this form. His team needs more width and no doubt a winger will be purchased in the summer.
Ref Watch – Howard Webb
Punished a head splitting elbow to Silva with a free kick as well as a hand in the face on Balotelli. Refused to book any of the mass of blatant first half fouls by dirty Stoke but booked Barry for his first foul. The man is a joke of a ref and a clear United fan.