Tony Pulis said last week that he has never bothered watching Stoke’s 2011 FA Cup final defeat to Manchester City, such is the hurt that Yaya Touré’s Wembley winner causes him.
After a fourth-round tie devoid of real excitement or trickery, not many will be queuing up to purchase the DVD of this one either.
Pablo Zabaleta was the unlikely hero, sealing a 1-0 win for Roberto Mancini’s side late on, but the action lacked the intensity expected at the Britannia Stadium. In a throwback to the Potters’ earlier top-flight years it was an abhorrent tackle that created the main talking point.
The determination to get the job done pleased the City management. While they are keeping clean sheets – now five on the spin in January – and just doing enough to win games, secuing the double is a real possibility.
“It was a longer afternoon than it perhaps should have been but we’re delighted with the way that we played,” City’s coach David Platt said afterwards.
The Premier League champions hadn’t won here since an old Division Two match in 1999, but seemed intent on laying the ghosts of uncomfortable draws and a painful 2010 FA Cup defeat to rest early on. David Silva hitting a post was the closest they came after a host of chances.
Ryan Shawcross had the ball in the net during a rare foray forward for the home side, but was correctly adjudged offside, while worryingly for Mancini, Vincent Kompany picked up an innocuous-looking injury diagnosed as a pulled calf muscle. After going off in the 40th minute, the captain watched from the tunnel for the remainder of the tie and will miss Tuesday’s trip to Queens Park Rangers.
The game’s true moment of contention and intrigue came when the mist descended on Glenn Whelan. He really should have seen red for a two-footed lunge at Javi Garcia but, instead, his tackle – akin to an amateur diver bombing into a swimming pool watched by Vernon Kay – went unpunished, with referee Howard Webb not even opting to award a foul despite being close by. As Webb missed it altogether, Whelan is likely to face stern retrospective punishment. It is difficult to imagine anything other than a three-match suspension, especially after the Eden Hazard circus of midweek.
The eventual goal summed up the lunchtime proceedings. Sergio Aguero’s pass, while in a decent area, wasn’t pinpoint in its accuracy. Edin Dzeko’s wafted leg deflected the ball to Zabaleta who drilled a shot past Thomas Sorensen to send the 4,100 travelling supporters into delirium.
“It isn’t by luck that Zabaleta gets into those positions,” said Platt. “The way that we play we get a lot of players forward. He’s been in those positions many times and tucked it away nicely.
Zabaleta, head and shoulders the best player on the pitch, rescued everyone from a further 90 minutes of anti-football Thank goodness these two don’t have to do it all over again at the Etihad Stadium. For City, though, the juggernaut could be picking up speed.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen; Shotton, Shawcross, Huth, Wilkinson (Whitehead, 73); Kightly (Jerome, 67), Whelan, N’Zonzi, Etherington; Walters, Jones (Crouch, 73).
Manchester City (4-4-2): Pantilimon; Zabaleta, Kompany (Clichy, 40), Lescott, Kolarov (Aguero, 63); Milner, Garcia, Barry, Silva; Tevez (Rodwell, 86), Dzeko.
Referee: Howard Webb.
Man of the match: Zabaleta (Manchester City)
Match rating: 4/10