Stoke well beaten by Manchester City
Manchester City 3 Stoke City 0: In the words of the T-shirt that Edin Dzeko displayed to the crowd, it was a happy new year at Eastlands.
There was a brass band playing on the concourse. Timothy Dalton – who rather unfairly is lumped in with George Lazenby as the James Bond nobody can quite remember – and David Hasselhoff were holding court in the directors’ box and Stoke were the visitors.
Tony Pulis’s side are renowned for a masculine, muscular approach to the game but, whenever they come to Manchester, they become a blonde in a B-movie.
Since winning promotion in 2008, Stoke have never managed a point at either Old Trafford or Eastlands and they have yet to score a single league goal at Manchester City. Here, their first attempt came from a free-kick in the 59th minute and by then the champions were two up and the game was dead.
Hasselhoff and Dalton are not the first film stars to come to Eastlands but they were given less of a show than Tom Cruise, who witnessed the jaw-dropping spectacle of last month’s Manchester derby. “Great game”, tweeted Hasselhoff, which shows The Hoff’s standards are not especially high. It was ridiculously one-sided.
Nevertheless, a day after Roberto Mancini had demanded that with the Touré brothers bound for the African Cup of Nations, the club could not afford to lose anyone else, he had to endure the sight of Sergio Aguero walking off with a hamstring injury.
“Great to end and begin the year with a win,” Aguero tweeted. “Too bad about the crick. Will have to rest for 48 hours and then have some studies done.”
With his quick feet and quicker brain, the Argentine had been the man of this particular match. David Platt, the club’s assistant manager, predicted the forward would definitely miss the FA Cup tie with Watford and probably the encounter at Arsenal that follows. “Whether Yaya [Touré] disappears or not, the challenge is to keep winning football matches and we expect whichever 11 we put on the pitch to take the points,” Platt said.
From the moment Pablo Zabaleta opened the scoring, the points were not up for negotiation. Pulis attempted to explain the listlessness of Stoke’s performance by pointing to the gulf in finances – “You give me £220m and I’ll come back here next year and see what happens,” Pulis said.
Here, Stoke appeared to be on a damage-limitation exercise from the opening moments that saw Asmir Begovic save with his feet from Aguero. The time-wasting began before 30 minutes were showing on the Etihad’s electronic scoreboard.
Aguero’s skill was irresistible and it seemed odd that his only reward should be from a penalty, awarded for a foul by Steven N’Zonzi on David Silva. On Saturday, the South African had been unfortunate to have been sent off in the 3-3 draw with Southampton that showed the kind of fighting spirit Stoke display everywhere bar Manchester. Here, the challenge was outside the area.
Begovic got a glove to the penalty, which was just about the least skilful piece of play Aguero had been involved in. The best came when he took a long ball from Gareth Barry on his chest, turned and shot wide before sinking to his knees. Then, he struck the post and ran his hands through his hair.
It was an Argentine who made the breakthrough, though not Diego Maradona’s son-in-law, but Zabaleta, a man with a low profile and a high work-rate. He was on the point of receiving a return pass from Silva, changed his mind and left if for James Milner, whose shot was blocked by Begovic’s overworked legs. Zabaleta was perfectly placed to tuck away the rebound.
The relief was everywhere. Wigan’s record against Manchester United is almost as feeble as Stoke’s once they venture up the M6. An away win at the DW Stadium might have put United nine points clear if City could not break through what hitherto had been the division’s tightest defence.
Pulis summed up what followed: “Manchester City were better than us and sometimes you have to open your eyes and let reality hit you straight in the face.” The blows kept coming after the interval and, although Glenn Whelan struck the post by way of retaliation, it came at a time when the match was hopelessly lost.
Dzeko had given Stoke fair warning when he ran on to a chip from Yaya Touré and met it with a shot on the run that looked for a single, dramatic moment that it would dip beneath Begovic’s bar.
Then, Aguero lost his marker again, saw his shot parried by the keeper and knocked home by Dzeko, who revealed his new year message. For this display of humour he was given a yellow card, the same punishment as Robert Huth received for a crude challenge.
Football is a sport increasingly devoid of humour. Had Len Shackleton, a man who gloried in the title of “the clown prince of soccer” when he was in his pomp at Sunderland, attempted to sit on the ball now he would be booked. The blank page of his autobiography entitled “What the average director knows about football” would trigger a disrepute charge.