Date: 14th September 2013 at 5:13pm
Written by:

Manuel Pellegrini certainly let it be known that rotation is the name of the game at the Etihad Stadium this season. Virtually all of his players had been away on international duty over the last two weeks, so it was time to take stock of what and who was available and fresh together with those who were returning from injury or becoming indispensable. Only 3 players have now started in all City’s Premier League games so far this season.

With Hart as usual in goal another new backline was presented ahead of him this time in the shape of Zabaleta, Nastasic, Garcia and Kolarov. It looked like a clear recipe for biting one’s finger nails. Milner, Yaya, Rodwell and Nasri made up the middle of the park with Negredo up top and new boy Jovetic getting his first Premier League start.

Despite this unusual looking line-up the match got off to quite an entertaining start. Those of us thinking that City’s erstwhile manager, Mark Hughes might construct a team to do the job that QPR only just failed to do at the end of the 2010-2011 season were probably surprised that this was not to be the dour affair that you associate with when you visit Stoke City. In the early exchanges there were chances at both ends.

Wilson had a crack from outside the box, Yaya and Jovetic created things for City. For Stoke Nzonzi looked lively, Etherington dangerous down the left and Jones was in to knock the centre backs about and leave them with the uncertainty that shrouds City’s defence when Kompany is on the sidelines.

Adam was making his presence felt and on the quarter hour got clear down the right and put in a teasing cross that found Walters completely unmarked. As the crowd anticipated a goal he inexplicably headed it wide!

City looked a bit shaky for a few minutes then, no doubt the uncertainty generated at Cardiff flashing back into mind. Negredo was getting his first real feel of “Welcome to the Premier League, my son” matched up against the tower formerly known as Huth and without Navas out wide his supply line seemed to have been cut off as Nasri and Milner are not natural wide men. Milner has been, but is more of a true midfield player these days. It would be really down to him and Zaba to work their overlaps down the right to get some crosses in or for Jovetic to work the channels.

On the half hour a poor error by Nasri, giving away possession too easily, should have presented Jones with the opener but his tame effort was well saved by Hart starfish style. Stoke were enjoying a good spell in which they were playing a type of football not seen in these parts under Pulis. Some of their support work out wide was useful and it kept an air of discomfort in City’s penalty area as Yaya dug in deeper and deeper.

City spent too much time building from the back, getting as far as Yaya and Rodwell and back to square one again. It was more a game of snakes and ladders rather than chess. Jovetic shot well wide from thirty yards and then Adam tested Hart from a similar distance but generally there wasn’t much afoot in either final third.

Huth then clattered Jovetic outside the box. Was it to be Yaya time? No it was Kolarov time and pretty much as expected it was the Stoke fans behind the goal that were tested in preference to Begovic.

It was equal at the break. Both teams looked to have set up 4-4-1-1 with Stoke ready to retreat to 4-5-1 and City looking to spring to 4-3-3 on attack. It looked a bit narrow from City’s viewpoint. The top two were marshalled by Huth and Shawcross and it was probably Stoke who looked more lively in the first period, attacking from both sides but the two golden chances apart, not having enough to show.

Stoke were very much on the front foot at the start of the second half. They were hunting down their right where Kolarov was very much an absentee and a cross from Jerome rolled along City`s unattended six yard line and neither Walters nor Jones could get the final touch. Nastasic was looking like a rock one minute and a jelly the next.

It was all Stoke as City either gave away free kicks, which resulted in Garcia getting a yellow card, or hoofed the ball towards the forwards which was meat and drink to Shawcross and Huth. Adam put in another neat cross and Jones rose like a salmon to out jump Nastasic, but again his header missed the target.

On the hour a wide free kick swung into the box and the adapted Stoke back eight were outjumped by Jovetic who couldn’t get the header on target, as he prepared to be replaced by Aguero. Immediately at the other end Adam unleashed another long range shot which didn’t trouble Hart.

Maybe Aguero would be more capable of holding the ball up front. The Blues think tank was looking pretty empty as nothing seemed to be going City’s way and with them constantly creating their own problems, Garcia providing the next, it was left to a last ditch superb tackle by Zabaleta to keep the score at 0-0.

City really needed Nasri to push on. Rodwell had become anonymous, Yaya was trying to dictate but was generally too deep and the Blues simply were not hurting Stoke at all. A duo of changes saw Stoke introduce Stephen Ireland who replaced Etherington. Adam was also replaced by Arnautovic.

Pellegrini decided Nasri’s time had come after 65 minutes and sent on Navas to try to get the Blues moving and hopefully set up, or score a winner.

An injury to Jones gave rise to the entry of Crouch, the scourge of the Blues defence on so many occasions.

With ten to go Navas kept a long pass in well and his cross saw Negredo spring like Skippy the bush kangaroo to the extent that his knee smashed into the face of Huth who dropped like a baby in a play pen. Treatment was administered and somehow he managed to be able to continue although he didn’t fancy making a challenge in City’s next attack. City were at last putting on some pressure, but Rodwell relieved them giving away another unnecessary free kick when he was blocked off in their penalty area.

City were still prone to errors and Negredo was next to surrender a free kick which on another day would have sent shivers down the spine, but this new Stoke team tries to play some football rather than launch howitzers into the box.

Nastasic was guilty of another inexplicable foul against Crouch on the edge of the box. Crouch had no chance of getting the ball but used his body to draw the foul. Arnautovic couldn’t make the free kick count as the game moved into 6 minutes of stoppage time.

City tried to step up the pace at last but couldn’t force anything and it was Hart in the mouth stuff in the 96th minute when Arnautovic curled a beauty towards the top corner and missed…just.

So what kind of performance was this by City? With all the changes it was bound to be a little disjointed. As early as 2 weeks ago the bookies called the result right stating it was another match in which Pellegrini could drop points. And that proved to be correct. Stoke could probably feel aggrieved that they didn’t get all three points as they squandered chance after chance. I made it 6 or 7.

That of course highlights the issues. Kolarov was suspect wide out on defence, Garcia was suspect in the centre looking like a fish out of water alongside Nastasic. It’s difficult enough to play out of position but when there is a different partner every time you play it makes it worse.

In midfield it was pretty much the Yaya show, although until the latter stages he was too deep for much of the time and therefore ineffective. Alongside him, Rodwell played more like Rodney Trotter as the game passed him by. City were also ineffective down the wings until Navas came on in the last 20 minutes.

Once again this isolated the front men. Jovetic had to come too deep to get into the match often leaving the able Negredo to battle it out with Huth and Shawcross, but at least he showed he was up for the battle and that he too is a tough customer. But seeming to be overcoming his early season demons, Hart was probably the stand-out player today, which speaks volumes. He produced a couple of excellent saves to keep Stoke out and marshalled another makeshift back four reasonably well despite the fact that they gave away a number of clear chances.

Although he looked lively early on, once again Nasri flattered to deceive and this from your writer who was screaming at Didier Deschamps to put him on for France on Tuesday! Milner did his usual workmanlike job without setting anything up on attack.

I would like to see Jovetic play in a team that includes David Silva, injured in midweek and therefore unavailable today. He looks an intelligent footballer this man and he can make unexpected moves into the slots. Nasri doesn’t offer the craft of Silva, who was sorely missed today.

For their part Stoke are no mugs as we all know and Mark Hughes has them playing much more football than they have for the last few years. Nzonzi had a good game for them and their back line as always looked reasonably resolute giving Begovic an almost free afternoon.

City will probably be happy with a point from this match, but it was not an ideal warm up for next Sunday’s match even though they have a trip to the Czech Republic before then.

all times East Manchester BST

Tu 17 Sep 20h45 Viktoria Plzen, Doosan Arena, CLGS1
Su 22 Sep 16h00 The rags, The Etihad PL
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Sa 05 Oct 12h45 Everton, The Etihad PL
Sa 19 Oct 17h30 West Ham, Upton Park PL
We 23 Oct 17h00 CSKA Moscow, Arena Khimki CLGS3
Su 27 Oct 16h00 Chelsea, Stamford Bridge PL
Sa 02 Nov 15h00 GMT Norwich City, The Etihad PL
Tu 05 Nov 17h00 GMT CSKA Moscow, The Etihad CLGS4
Su 10 Nov 1405 GMT Sunderland, Stadium of Light PL
Su 24 Nov 13h30 GMT Spurs, The Etihad PL
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