Date: 26th January 2013 at 3:31pm
Written by:

It was a sunny reception for the Blue Mooners today at one of football’s coldest outposts, in fact only Oldham has a more Arctic nature as Liverpool will discover this weekend. The snow was piled up inside the stadium in a manner that would have closed a Welsh motorway and along the pitchside, neatly leaving just enough room for the long-throwers and outside in a way that would have got an Arsenal match postponed.

Thankfully Mancini did not decide to become “Il nuovo Tinkerman” electing only to change 3 positions with Pantilimon getting a second outing in goal, the returning Kolarov taking over at left back and the more robust Lescott instructed to continue where he left off in the recent Premier League encounter between the teams.

City meant business, no doubt taking my view, that they need to win something this year and that the Abu Dhabi paymasters would see the double as an improvement on last year. We have seen this week that the Theatre of Dreams is beginning to be just that again as the red-nosed Knight is eyeing a treble.

When you find yourself playing against Stoke there are a number of inevitabilities, the first of which is that you do not encounter any discernible football being played against you. And this was highlighted once again today as they invariably sent out Jones on his perennial free kick search and Shawcross and Whelan to emulate combined harvesters as time and again they left a foot in deliberately trying to injure City’s more gifted players, or so it seemed.

With Howard the Red as referee, it was also inevitable that at the end of the match there would be a generous amount of added time especially if the result was going anything like City’s way.

From the off City set about their job as Stoke set about them. Chances came and went especially to the off-colour Tevez who couldn’t make anything count and finally to the Magician himself whose one piece of pure magic had a statuesque defence looking on as it cannoned back off the far post.

Stoke were beginning to wonder what the ball looked like as they hadn’t seen much of it, but the next inevitability was that the first real attack they launched should see the ball hit the back of City’s net. Thankfully, from being statuesque at one end as he admired Silva’s work, the combined harvester formerly known as Shawcross was equally statuesque in an offside position as he turned a cross into the net.

With over the top tackles the vogue for the day against Silva and for that matter anyone in a sky-blue shirt, the next inevitability was that a City player would get booked for practically nothing by comparison. And that duly happened to Kolarov as he held a Stoke player for at least a split second, but Hawkeye Howard went straight to his pocket without video technology. Amazing, especially as when the City reject Whelan thuggishly stamped on Garcia in a way that was evidently pre-determined and could have put the City midfielder out for the rest of the season. A reluctant free-kick for City, but no word from Webb’s pocket.

Tevez could and should have got the scoreboard programmers working but there is a sharpness lacking from his game right now. He seems not to quite run the right channels and takes it upon himself to hit shots from unlikely positions when other players are better placed. At least three times today he did this when Dzeko or Silva had made neat runs which an equally neat pass would have probably resulted in a goal. As it was, Stoke got themselves to half-time at 0-0, their roughhouse tactics again looking as though they would un-nerve City.

First half statistics must have favoured City heavily, but Stoke, to the crescendo of noise that emanates from their fans at this stadium decided to try to step on the gas. However they do lack anything in their team that vaguely resembles quality and finally after 55 minutes Webb couldn’t stay out of his pocket any more, finally finding a way to caution Shotton for another despicable foul from behind on Tevez.

With Captain Kompany hobbling off with a recurrence of an earlier injury, Mancini sent on Clichy and City went with a back three, Zabaleta having his wings clipped on the right. On several occasions moves broke down there as Milner and Silva looked for Zaba’s trademark diagonal run, disappointed to find him languishing in defence.

Nothing looked right up top for City. Dzeko tried hard to create space, but neither Tevez nor Silva could find their way into it as the Stoke six yard box was vacant as far as City were concerned. When the next change came, along with it came the next inevitability, that Aguero would enter the fray and try to find one of those gaps. Kolarov found his way indoors.

City were risking at times only playing two at the back, much as they did against this opposition at Wembley as Clichy pushed down the left and Zaba was instructed to get his runs going down the right.

This prompted Pulis to send on more aerial power and maybe set up the final inevitability such as Crouch scoring the winner against an opposition that has delivered him success in the past, albeit at times illegally. But with 85 minutes on the clock the final inevitabilities arrived in abundance. With the front and middle lines shooting soft-nosed bullets, the inevitable Zaba got in one final, inevitable diagonal run and inevitably put the Blues in front. And for this he was inevitably awarded the Man-of the-Match. Another fitting tribute to City’s Man-of-the-Season, so far.

There was still time for Webb to wind up his Alex Ferguson watch and produce five minutes of stoppage time, but this time City were resistant, kept the ball well and denied Stoke and Crouch anything that even resembled a scoring opportunity.

Not a match for the purists, proving once again that at times you have to roll up your sleeves, take whatever is launched at you or indeed whatever launches you and believe in yourself to the end. This is what Mancini’s men did today and were finally rewarded the chance to scorn a replay and move into the next round. I suspect the ice-bags were in full use after this match and that the sick-bay at Carrington will have more than one occupant on Monday, but City are still alive in this competition and must look now to win it.

Creditable performances from Pantilimon, Lescott and of course Barry, but with Zabaleta playing in at least three different roles during this match, the champagne was his. The lack of sharpness up front was worrying today with Tevez busy but not in scoring mode, Dzeko not seeing enough of the ball in dangerous positions and finally Aguero seemingly buzzing around without portfolio.

Barry and Garcia looked rock solid in denying Stoke any space, but they don’t generally need any in front of the back four as they launch their missiles from just about anywhere on the field. Stoke’s football was poor today, but I still think Huth was worth a mention as he put in a good performance at the back and his blocking looked as though it would give Stoke another chance to adorn the Etihad. Mancini once referred to them as a rugby team but that description is not befitting of the genuine perpetrators of the noble code, whether League or Union.

City will take this result at one of their not-so-happy-hunting-grounds and see which ex-Stretford ball picker can give them another tough draw tomorrow afternoon.

17h45 GMT Sunday 27th January 2013
@ Wembley Stadium – Live on FATV and ITV1
City: Ball Number 10

all times East Manchester

Tu 29Jan 19h45 QPR, Loftus Road, PL
Su 03Feb 16h00 Liverpool, The Etihad, PL
Sa 09Feb 17h30 Southampton, St Mary’s, PL
Sa/Su 16/17Feb TBC FA Cup Fifth Round
Su 24Feb 13h30 Chelsea, The Etihad, PL
Mo 04Mar 20h00 Aston Villa, Villa Park, PL
Sa 09Mar 15h00 Wigan, The Etihad, PL
Sa 16Mar 12h45 Everton, Goodison Park, PL
Sa 30Mar 15h00 Newcastle, The Etihad, PL