With the international break over City had the unenviable task of an away fixture at one of their bogey sides Stoke. City have not won away at Stoke in their last five Premier League outings and you have to go back to the old third tier of English football and January 1999 for City`s last away win at The Britannia Stadium. City however are a different prospect this season having won eight of their last nine Premier League games whilst in contrast Stoke had recorded six draws from their last seven games. The contrast does not end there; City`s Yaya Toure had averaged 99 passes per game whilst no Stoke player had made 99 passes this season!
With one eye on Tuesday night`s game of the Season against Real Madrid, Mancini mixed his team up a little as Silva, Kolarov, Dzeko and Zabaleta found themselves out of the starting eleven. The team read as follows; Hart, Maicon, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy, Yaya, Garcia, Nasri, Sinclair, Tevez and Balotelli. The subs bench consisted of; Wright, Kolarov, Kolo, Barry, Rodwell, Silva and Dzeko. So full debuts for Maicon, Garcia and Sinclair in a game that if nothing else would be a physical introduction to the Premier League for two of the three.
The game kicked off in perfect conditions as Mancini in his 1000th game in charge looked to make it through this game with his playing squad intact and the three points in the bag.
City started the better of the two teams and dominated the opening exchanges, putting their hosts under pressure and in the fourth minute, Tevez followed some neat footwork with a great shot which went just wide of Begovic`s post.
Stoke though were at home and weren`t about to be bossed around by City and some hefty challenges started to creep into their game, overlooked for the most part by Mark Clattenberg. The ref looked more like a footballer than a ref with his perma tan and his finely coiffured and gelled Mohican hairstyle.
Both teams prodded and probed but neither goalkeepers had been tested, then in the 13th minute Stoke won a soft free kick. Whelan whipped the ball in and Crouch neatly controlled the ball with his hand to get past his marker and followed up with a finish past the startled Hart. The ref had only been yards away but somehow missed the change in the ball`s direction as it came into contact with Crouch`s outstretched hand. One nil to Stoke and City had it all to do.
City looked shaken by the goal whilst Stoke and Clattenberg seemed buoyant. Tevez and Balotelli contrived to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and in the 22nd minute the played a neat interchange of passes capped off with a shot from the Italian which went over the opposition bar.
City had calmed down by the 28th minute and had slowed the pace down, retaining the ball with neat pass and move interchanges. Balotelli was at the centre of a lot of City`s good work, but each time he found himself in a promising position, he was either dragged or hacked down by a Stoke ‘player`. Clearly this was a tactic being employed by Stoke in an attempt to get the brilliant striker sent off. One in three times Clattenberg awarded a free kick, but more often than not, the fiery Italian was left on the floor incensed.
On the half hour, City were awarded a free kick for another foul on Balotelli. He stepped up to the plate and fired in a decent shot which went just wide of the Stoke goal.
Three minutes later and it was all square. After some neat footwork by Balotelli, the striker was once again brought to the floor in an unseemly fashion. Tevez stepped up to swing in the free kick and new boy Javi Garcia leapt like a salmon to rise majestically above the Stoke defence and put the ball into the back of the Stoke net with a bullet header.
The goal fired up the Blues fans who were in fine voice, but Stoke clearly had other ideas and raised the tempo of their defending. They seemed to be first to every ball and were pushing the rules to the edge with their hard tackles, shirt pulling and niggly fouls that constantly broke up the City play. The ref seemed to aid their game, giving free kicks at the slightest whim against City yet demanding ABH or better to award a free kick for The Blues. Still this was Stoke and this was to be expected.
The final few minutes of the half were dominated by Stoke as they looked to hit early Crouch from wherever they found themselves in position on the pitch, simple but effective. The hosts won a succession of corners as the half drew to a close, but City held on to go in all square at half time. Stoke`s tactics on occasion were brutal and their constant long balls somewhat boring, but they were effective. There were shaky starts for both Maicon and Sinclair, but Garcia looked tough and lively in the middle.
The second half, unfortunately for City, started as the first hand ended, with Stoke on the offensive, pressing hard and pushing the boundaries of what could be deemed clean. Balotelli was again being pulled, pushed and dragged round by his markers and Clattenberg seemed happy for this to go on.
The Blues were looking shaky and despite a breakaway in the 53rd minute from which they won a corner, it had been all Stoke.
The first yellow card of the game unsurprisingly was awarded by the generous Mr Clattenberg to Garcia as he tried to pull out of a tackle and came together with Kightly. The Stoke player had clearly been attending acting lessons as he rolled around as if shot. His recovery though was nothing short of miraculous as the ref brandished his yellow card.
The game broke into life again in the 60th minute when Stoke dropped another bomb toward Crouch who`s header was smartly saved by Hart. The City keeper released the ball quickly and within seconds, it was Begovic saving smartly from a super strike by Balotelli.
In the 64th minute, Barry replaced Tevez allowing Mancini to push Yaya up to play just behind Balotelli and soon after this, Stoke made a change of their own replacing Kightly with Etherington.
The game carried on in a similar fashion as City dominated possession, shots and shots on target, whilst Stoke dominated in long passes and hefty challenges.
In 76th minute Sinclair who hadn`t had the best of games was replaced by Silva. .
The Blues were passing like Champions now as Stoke`s formation had degenerated to a classic 10-0-1 making it difficult for City to break them down.
After some neat passing in the 84th minute, Silva movement found him unmarked in the Stoke box. The fans were crying out for a good ball into the box, but Maicon`s cross was over hit and went way off target. Another disappointing pass from the Brazilian full back who had a mixed bag for his debut game.
Stoke then replaced Adam with Cameron as we went into the final five minutes. Minutes later and City had a nailed on penalty shout turned down Clattenberg as Barry was brought down in the Stoke box. Unperturbed, the Blues went looking for the winning goal and Begovic was the Stoke hero as he made a fine save after Nasri hand worked himself into space and unleashed a wicked shot.
Stoke`s final substitution saw Crouch replaced by Owen and City`s saw Dzeko replace the battered and bruised Balotelli, sporting a split lip courtesy of an off the ball elbow somehow missed by Clattenberg.
It was backs against the wall for Stoke who were desperate to hang onto their unexpected point. The Stoke goal must have been blessed as first Begovic made a Gordon Banks esque save from another Garcia bullet header and then Shawcross somehow managed to hook the ball off the line after Dzeko beat the onrushing Begovic to the ball and deftly chipped the Stoke keeper.
So full time and a score line of one apiece. Probably not deserved by Stoke who only had four shots in the entire match but they stuck to their ugly but effective tactics and somehow (with the help of Clattenberg) managed to get through the entire 90 minutes without a yellow card. Hats off to Garcia who had an excellent debut and capped off his performance with a goal, Sinclair and Maicon`s performance showed some of what they can do, but their ball retention and strength were lacking.
Hart – 7
Never really tested and couldn’t be held at fault for the Crouch ‘goal’.
Maicon – 6
Showed shades of what he can do but his ball retention was poor.
Kompany – 7
Good distribution, but once again beaten by Crouch (‘s hand).
Lescott – 7
Looked solid and comfortable on the ball.
Clichy – 7
Put in a few good crosses and his tackling was spot on.
Yaya – 7
Stuck to his task well when defending but looked ponderous when he was moved up field.
Garcia – 8
Considering this was his first premier league game, you couldnt tell. Looked assured and tough with a nice touch and scored a great headed goal.
Nasri – 6
Didn’t look as effective on the right.
Sinclair – 6
Hardly in the game in the first half. Showed one or two glimpses in the second half.
Tevez – 8
Chased and harried and showed his never say die attitude again.
Balotelli – 8
Clearly the subject of bully boy tactics by Stoke in an attempt to get him sent off. Stayed calm and in control despite a nasty off the ball elbow.
Barry – 7
Solid, reliable, good ball retention and read the game well. One of City’s unsung heroes.
Silva – 7
Looks so comfortable on the ball and a class apart in the midfield.
Nearly scored the winner with one of his few touches.
Definitely had one eye on Tuesday’s match. Was robbed of victory by a clear cheating hand by Crouch.
Ref Watch – Mark Clattenberg.
A pathetic excuse for a referee that allowed bully boy tactics to go unpunished, thought it was ok to handle the ball before scoring and that elbows in the face off the ball are allowed. Still his footballers haircut was pristine at the end of ninety minutes. Would probably have issued a yellow card to a Stoke player had they produced a weapon of some sort on the pitch…..or maybe not!