Date: 22nd December 2011 at 10:22am
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With the exception of 1000 unsold away tickets, the Etihad was again packed to the rafters for the visit of FA Cup Finalists, Stoke City last night. 46321 braved wet and cold conditions to see if Mancini could celebrate two years in charge, effectively where it all began, against Stoke City.

Stoke have become a resilient Premier League side and even the teams at the top do not relish playing against them, especially when their 4-4-2 changes to 4-6-0 as it looked to do for the first half hour or so. For his part Mancini shuffled his pack in masterly fashion, selecting an eleven to do the job and ensure that his boys would sit proudly at the top of the league at Christmas for the first time since 1929.

Ahead of the match and, as is always the case at Christmas, the Club remembered it`s lost and loved and this year, of course, it included Neil Young and Mike Doyle from the playing perspective. The silence quickly turned to applause and even cheers when those two names were read out.

It was also noted that the advertising boards on the Colin Bell Stand side looked somewhat closer to the touchline tonight. I wonder why?

And so to football. An odd looking line-up, looked like a ground attack from City, no doubt designed to confuse Stoke`s big lads at the back and to cause them discomfort. Aguero, Nasri and Silva were to provide the focus, with Johnson the width and Barry and Yaya the midfield resistance. It worked pretty much according to plan.
For their part Stoke left the wide players who were either injured or pegged back at Wembley on the sidelines and to an extent this isolated Jones and Walters up top. Shawcross was also unavailable due to suspension, whereas, for City, Clichy was back from suspension.

The first time City got the ball you could see Stoke`s intent. It was a gap-fill exercise from the ranks of red and white stripes as they fell into line to deny City space. From the first time he got the ball you could also see Johnson`s intent as he set about trying to open up the Stoke defence and get himself noticed again. His first cut was to cut inside and send in a howitzer which hit the bar.

Despite Stoke`s massed ranks at the bank and shortage of ambition up front, City got into triangular mode with Silva and Nasri picking passes and Aguero popping up all over the front line like a jack-in-the-box, testing and tormenting at every turn. This man has amazing strength for one so small and will not be bullied, no matter how big his opponents are. Unlucky in two recent matches it was perhaps fitting that on the half hour, the magician squeezed the ball through to Yaya who hit it goalward. Kompany confused the defenders and forced Sorensen to push the ball out to Aguero who gleefully turned it into the net.

The dyke in front of Stoke was broken and their game plan crumbling all around them. It was also fitting that six minutes later, as City pressed, a pass from Clichy towards Silva along the inside left channel looked be running dead, when for some reason Whitehead having surreptitiously nudged Silva out of the way, decided to try to clear his lines rather that get his team a goal kick. His clearance ran to Adam Johnson. He took one step left and leathered a curling shot, trade mark style into the bottom corner. “Remember me, Roberto?” Sorensen didn`t have a prayer.

As the possession stats piles up in City`s favour, the Blues strolled their way to half time two goals in front.

It was pretty much business as usual as City took the field for the second half. Starving Stoke of the ball the Blues went into pretty pattern mode leaving many a beleaguered potter in their wake as Stoke chased shadows. The ground attack moved fluidly and interchanged rapidly leaving Stoke wondering who they were marking and why.

Aguero twice set his sights with an edge of the box shot well saved by Sorensen, and a similar one from inside the box, but it was into City`s prime scoring time that the lead increased with as sweet a move as you will see anywhere in the world.

The unheralded Gareth Barry won the ball inside the Stoke half and, as the defence backed off and the midfield remained static, the door opened up for a pass to Nasri wide on the right. With the defenders still retreating and in disarray, Nasri sent a daisy cutter along the six yard line to the opposite side of the goal where the unmarked Aguero turned it into the net, after 56 minutes.

And that was that. City looked as though they could score any time they turned up the heat. Stoke looked totally outclassed. Whatever the endgame stat attack told us about possession, it did not tell us that most of Stoke`s possession was in their own half. I was surprised to find that they actually had two shots, none of which were on target, as Joe had to keep himself warm for most of this match.

It was time to ring the changes. First Micah headed for the changing rooms carrying a knock, then Silva went for a well-earned rest to be replaced by, you guessed it, Santa Claus Balotelli. Finally Gareth Barry who once again had an extraordinary match made way for Milner.

The fun and games began in Block 111 as the Blue Mooners sang “Let`s pretend you`ve had a shot” followed by “Shots on goal, you`re having a laugh” and finally “You`ve had a throw-in, now clear off home” or words to that effect.

The game ended with a needless caution for Johnson for jersey tugging and Mario trying so hard to trouble the scoreboard writers.
Stoke looked well out of their depth in this match. Intent on keeping themselves compact they didn`t really give Jones and Walters a chance as they were starved of service with Etherington and Pennant looking on from the bench. They were dominated and over run in midfield where Toure and Barry were totally in charge as they moved the ball quickly to Silva, Aguero and Nasri, all of which were live wires and all of whose appetite for movement, running and goal attempts did not abate all evening.

If muscle was needed at the back, Kompany and Lescott were rock solid and a tackle by Kompany on Walters early on needed to be timed to perfection and it duly was. For his sheer energy and goalscoring alone Aguero had to be man of the match but there were excellent performances from Barry and the rampaging Yaya in the midfield. Barry has become king of the dirty work and almost got himself a goal late on. He has managed to stave off the challenge from Nigel de Jong who each week now sits on the bench as Mancini seeks positivity.

Yaya is a frightening proposition, hunting around the midfield, always showing for the ball and doing something with it when he gets it. Never one for an early shower, he will be missed more than most when he heads with his brother to the African Cup of Nations, next month.

The enigma that is Johnson is also stepping up to the plate. His seasonal reminder to his manager was timely as City gets set to embark upon a season-defining month with key matches against Liverpool, three, Tottenham and of course a small team from Salford. There will be matches for everyone in January as Mancini will need to keep the squad fresh especially if City ends Stretford`s domestic season by eliminating them from the FA Cup.

City are in good shape and assuming they can offload some dead wood in January, one or two more names could be inbound. I don`t suspect it will be Messi or Cavani, but cover in midfield for Yaya and maybe another full back could be priorities.

Two clean sheets in a row have stopped the rot at the back. Even City`s defence can`t give chances to a team that can`t attack!

Over the weekend we saw Barcelona take Santos apart in the World Club Challenge. If Barca are playing the best club football in the world, the second best at this time is being played by our very own?.Manchester City!


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