Date: 31st August 2014 at 9:38am
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Having started the season with maximum points against tricky opponents, the Etihad stage should have been set for a routine collection of an additional three points as City entertained the Potters.

But somebody sent them the wrong script and just as they did in their second title-winning season, Pellegrini’s men suffered an early-season complacency that could cost them dearly when the accolades are handed out next May.

Mark Hughes has been changing the face of Stoke City, moulding them into a different kind of footballing force than that delivered by Tony Pulis, but for today, just as he did when he brought along his QPR team on “that day”, it was more a case of delivering a fleet of buses to protect his team’s penalty area, but with a surprise to spring. And what a surprise!

City’s line-up bore a couple of anticipated alterations as the Engineer aims to have everybody sharper for the upcoming seven matches in twenty days, once the International break leaves us behind, but it was the lesser-known lights from the land of China that could have contributed, even so early in the season, to City leaving behind the title trophy come the end of the season.

Last year City tossed away six early-season points against the likes of Cardiff City, later to be relegated, and Aston Villa, later to just about avoid relegation and it left the Blue Mooners angry and frustrated. The Etihad Stadium yesterday bore all the hallmarks of a similar outcome.

Hart has already laid down his statement and was selected unopposed, some might say, between the sticks. New signing Sagna rather sadly for me took over from Zabaleta at right back. Kompany and Demichelis were in the centres flanked by Kolarov on the left. The magnificent Fernando was playing guard, giving Yaya the space to support Aguero and Jovetic up top with Silva and Nasri designed to provide the “magic”.

Mark Hughes’ team is a combination of the old Stoke City guard with a new-look approach and attack. Shawcross and Wilson still line the back and Walters and Crouch provide the attack, but it is behind them where Hughes has made un-Stoke-like changes adding a layer of credible creativity, none more so than ex-Stretford Diouf who was to cause more than just a few problems.

With the talent at his fingertips The Engineer would have expected a routine collection of three points at a packed Etihad Stadium, but his team forgot the basics..there are no “gimmies” in the Barclays Premier League and this proved to be a timely reminder that this is a very difficult league to negotiate.

City moved the ball with some fluency through the midfield but once they reached the edge of the Stoke City box, with even Crouch back in there adding height and body, the massed ranks of red and white stripes left them with very little in terms of sights of the goal. Time and again the likes of Shawcross and Bardsley threw themselves into road blocks and time and again even Silva and Yaya selected the wrong options and channels when openings arose.

It was somewhat amazing that the half time stats showed City had had four shots at goal because the only one of any note was on the stroke of half time, when Aguero held off his suitors and slid the ball to Kolarov who strolled around Bardsley to set up Yaya who, if anything hammered the ball too hard and hit the upright rather than the back of the net. The groans resonated around the stadium and the referee mercifully brought one of the worst halves of football ever seen at this magnificent ground to a halt.

Could City kick on from almost opening the scoring? Well no!

The key to it from Stoke’s perspective was when Fernando unattended sank to the ground holding his inner thigh. He got up and literally plodded on for another couple of minutes before giving the signal that his afternoon was over and that a groin strain was directing him to sick bay. But, so what? In Fernandinho there is a ready-made replacement raring to go.

But along with Fernandinho comes a customary yellow card, and he duly obliged early in the second half. Then, with “City time” yielding only one attempt on goal, that again by Yaya and well saved by Begovic, the unlikely and undeserved happened.

Stoke had shown little in terms of attack and when Diouf collected the ball in his own half, City would hardly have felt stressed. But Diouf stoked the engine, powered past Kolarov with Fernandinho in pursuit. This would normally have been a signal for the Brazilian to clip his heels and take one for the team, but having already adorned the referee’s notebook that was not on the cards. Nor was it possible for Kompany, who as last man would have suffered the same fate. Either way Diouf hit the turbo and left both in his wake.

Hart didn’t know whether to stick or twist and Diouf’s rasping shot slotted itself between Hart’s legs as he went long and the shot went short. The 1200 Potters fans nestling in the South Stand couldn’t believe their luck and the Blue faithful elsewhere couldn’t believe what they had witnessed.

Stoke had proved impossible to break down at 0-0, now with a lead to guard things were going to be even more difficult. And so it proved. The wily old tricks of time-wasting, looking for free-kicks, in respect of which Mr Mason obliged in metronome-like fashion and taking ages over them came to the fore as a wave of anger and frustration swept around the stadium, at least in the home sections.

City would score, wouldn’t they? With all the ammunition on the field, surely something would happen. City can’t score “nil”. Stoke haven’t let in “nil” away from home since December. Well ladies and gentlemen this was to be their day.

As City huffed and puffed and danced around the edge of the Stoke penalty box in Arsenal-like fashion the incisive precision pass needed to unlock the gates simply never came. Aguero led the line manfully often with three Potters hanging around his neck but nobody seemed to be reading from his songsheet and nobody made the run into the right channel to seek to create an equaliser.

With the ground attack dug into a hole it was time to head for the skies and Navas and Dzeko replaced the ineffective Nasri and hard-working but today unproductive Jovetic. Hughes simply detailed Crouch to spend more time in his own area than City’s, swallowing up any space that Dzeko might create and ensuring that his half hour was uncomfortable and wasteful.

True, Navas’ pace had the beating of a tiring Pieters, but all too often his decision-making in terms of delivery was wrong. His high crosses for Dzeko didn’t find him and his low crosses for Aguero found no end of willing Stoke City defenders legs, happy to divert the ball anywhere but into their own net.

It is difficult to say that the Blues ran out of ideas. They played as though they didn’t have any to start with. Then in the dying minutes Yaya set off for the inside right slot and looked to have been fouled inside the box. Mason viewed this more as a dying swan, penalising the frustrated Yaya and showing him a yellow card. Had no one told Mason that City don’t dive and that if a player goes down in the box it is a penalty?

Stoke negotiated the four minutes of added time quite easily, wasting most of it down by City’s corner flag and neither the addition of Kompany and Kolarov to the attack could prise a last-minute opening.

So a day that started well with Stretford’s finest coming up empty again against newly-promoted Burnley ended in disaster as City succumbed to their first home defeat in top-flight football by Stoke City for the same number of years, 35, that it took them to win a major trophy against…Stoke City. Yaya couldn’t deliver the goods today and at last Hughes will have been delighted to inflict pain on his former employers.

This was at best a mixed performance. Stoke’s goal showed a lack of concentration all through City’s team and a poor attempt by Hart at keeping it out could leave the door ajar for Willy Caballero. Fernandinho needs not to offer token yellow cards every week and both Silva and Nasri need to understand that with Aguero approaching full fitness, he will make his trademark precision runs and needs to be found. Twice in this match he was open, hammer at the ready and both Nasri and Silva selected to pass elsewhere. With Suarez gone, Aguero is technically in a class of his own in the Barclays Premier League, so City must play to the Mighty Atom’s mighty strengths.

The back division was comfortable for all of this match except for the Stoke goal and Kompany sold himself too easily by homing in on Diouf who was on full steam ahead and would probably have fared better by backing off and trying to force him wide, but either way Kolarov wasn’t in position to have made up a second challenger.

Chelsea seemingly swept aside Everton and have laid down an early-season marker which leaves us wondering who is going to beat them. They are next up for City at the Etihad at the end of a week that will see the Blues visit Goonerland and Bayern Munich. September is not a pretty month for City and if the Sheffield Wednesday match is moved to Tuesday they will play 4 matches in 9 days.

For now we will have to hand it to Stoke. Going forward City will have to deliver much more than this if they want to keep their hands on the title trophy. It is first blood to Chelsea for this season.

 
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