The recent momentum gained by Manchester City in the tall task of overhauling runaway leaders Chelsea at the top of the Premier League was brought to a juddering halt by a resilient and determined Stoke City at the Etihad.
Pep Guardiola gambled on his team selection and, for once in recent weeks, the City manager’s magic touch deserted him as his side lacked conviction in their efforts to break down Mark Hughes’s well-organised side.
Considering the stakes - potential second place in the table and closing the gap behind first place to eight points - it was a strangely subdued performance by City and one reflected in the team selection made by Guardiola.
As the first half wore on, the decision to leave David Silva on the bench and Raheem Sterling out of the squad altogether looked increasingly questionable although at least City were not trailing by that stage, for they could have been.
Three times in the opening 16 minutes, a Stoke team looking to improve on a dreadful run of five defeats in their previous six away games might have taken the lead.
Just five minutes had gone when Erik Pieters’ cross was met by Mane Biram Diouf, who might have taken an advantage of a slip by Gael Clichy, but could only steer a difficult chance directly at keeper Willy Caballero.
After 16 minutes Saido Berahino, making his first start since his controversial move from West Brom in the January window, played in Ramadan Sobhi whose dangerous cross was intercepted by Caballero’s outstretched leg.
And a minute later, Phil Bardsley’s free-kick found Bruno Martins Indi unmarked in the City area but the big defender was unable to control the ball.
It was an ambitious start from Stoke, a reward for manager Hughes’s bold selection and decision to play two up front, although after those early chances, City began to take control.
Leroy Sane, the German winger really hitting his stride in the second half of the Premier League season, was a constant threat down City’s left wing.
But the closest City could come to beating Lee Grant in the Stoke goal was a 24th minute free-kick from defender Aleksandar Kolarov which the keeper did well to punch to safety as it threatened to sneak inside his post.
In the dying moments of the first period, Kevin De Bruyne came within an inch of gathering a well-weighted long ball from Nicolas Otamendi.
But the second half opened with Silva still on the bench and City again lacking any real killer instinct close to the Stoke goal.
Indeed, it took a strong covering block from Otamendi to make sure Berahino’s shot did not test Caballero after Jonathan Walters had been allowed to flick on a long punt from Grant.
The frustration being felt - and, increasingly, voiced - by home supporters increased when Sane was booked for simulation just outside the Stoke area after an attack came to nothing.
And Sane almost made amends by spearheading a fast break which ended with him squaring to the unmarked Aguero whose 18-yard shot struck Pieters and flew over.
Well before the hour, Guardiola had seen enough and finally threw on Silva, to replace the ineffective Navas.
Almost immediately, there appeared more urgency about City with Silva sparking a move which ended with De Bruyne crossing and Sane mistiming badly with a 12-yard shot.
City continued to improve, with Yaya Toure shooting over, Sane almost turning in Aguero’s touch at the far post and Silva playing a superb one-two with Fernandinho and sending a low shot narrowly wide of the post.
Silva also won a corner, somewhat fortunately, after a dangerous 20-yard shot passed just wide and took the flag kick himself, crossing for Otamendi to head narrowly over. There were also late chances for Aguero and substitute Kelechi Iheanacho but City could not break down a dogged Stoke rearguard.Reuse content