Standing up to the physical challenge posed by Stoke City on their own patch is one of the tests of true champions. Chelsea and Manchester United have managed it every time, and Manchester City appeared to be poised to emulate them when Micah Richards struck a stunning late goal.
Stoke, however, draw an indomitable spirit from their cacophonous support. Having dominated the first half before Roberto Mancini's side found their bearings, an equally fine stoppage-time equaliser from Matthew Etherington took the gloss off the Italian's 46th birthday.
Richards' first goal of the season came from a low shot after the right-back, playing only because Pablo Zabaleta was suspended, had taken James Milner's through-ball and turned Danny Collins with a dummy any international striker would have been proud to claim.
Yet just when Stoke's run of three successive victories looked set to end in defeat, Kenwyne Jones' header was audaciously back-heeled into the path of the outstanding Etherington, whose angled drive found the net via the hands of Joe Hart.
Manchester City thus lost ground on Manchester United and Arsenal, but their manager, while "disappointed" to concede at the death against a team whose "long-ball" approach is anathema to him, insisted he was not unduly concerned.
"I think the season is long and every game is difficult for each team," Mancini said. "I'm happy because my team played good football, and that was difficult here. In the second half we played very well."
According to Mancini, his team deserved to win, a statement which coaxed a wry smile from Tony Pulis. "What game was he watching?" the Stoke manager said. Pulis added: "You can have all the money in the world, and the top players, but a team going out there as one takes a lot of beating.
"At half-time we were desperately disappointed we weren't winning. When you're on top against one of the best sides in the League you have to take your chances."
Mancini, whose suave overcoat and fashionable scarf contrasted sharply with Pulis's tracksuit and baseball-cap chic, can scarcely have been surprised by Stoke, having had his first game in charge against them. This, indeed, was his third visit to the Potteries this year, previous League and FA Cup visits having brought a draw and a defeat. Centre-back Vincent Kompany predicted "a very manly challenge", and Stoke's assertive opening ensured he was proved right.
It contained familiar elements – Rory Delap's laser throw-ins, Jones' aerial power, relentless pressing in midfield and a barely legal welcome-to-Stoke challenge by Robert Huth on Mario Balotelli – but also some excellent attacking play. As befits Stanley Matthews' club, there was clever work on the wings by Jermaine Pennant and Etherington, while Jones and Ricardo Fuller gave Kompany and Kolo Touré a breathless start.
Half-chances arrived at regular intervals, Pennant firing narrowly over after five minutes and Etherington beating Hart to a through-pass only to see Touré block his goal-bound drive. Fuller dragged a shot wide after an intricate one-two with Jones and also forced a diving save from the England goalkeeper. It all added up to pressure of a kind several City players may not have experienced. Balotelli, for one, appeared bewildered by the intensity of it all.
Maintaining a high tempo is not easy and Stoke inevitably flagged in the 10 minutes before the interval. Manchester City, with Gareth Barry and Milner grafting hard, finally established a foothold, Aleksandar Kolarov putting their first shot on target after 36 minutes before Carlos Tevez almost profited from Danny Collins' stray back-pass. The shrinking violets in light blue performed with greater confidence thereafter. Even Balotelli emerged from his shell for a strong run and shot that flashed wide and later saw Kolarov's cross shoot through his legs when any touch would have produced a goal.
Apart from Richards' flourish, which came three minutes after Milner cleared off the line from Jones, it was a far cry from the fluid football with which Mancini's expensive polyglot band routed Fulham. This, though, was the Britannia Stadium, that soundtrap of red and white aggression, not the genteel environs of Craven Cottage. Frustrating as Etherington's riposte was for the visitors, it was a point not to be sniffed at.
Referee: Peter Walton
Man of the match: Etherington
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content