Mancini savours festive joy at top of the tree
Manchester City 3 Stoke City 0
It was precisely two years ago last night that Roberto Mancini was introduced as Manchester City manager and, if he actually had enough English to realise the event was turning into an inquisition into his predecessor's sacking, might have wondered what he was walking into. He was questioned about perfidy and asked whether he had undertaken background checks on the men who had just sacked Mark Hughes. When he posed for photographs on the pitch outside, a fans' banner was hanging which borrowed from an Oasis song. "Some might say we will find a brighter day," it read.
City have certainly found one, now, and it is curious how the stripes of Stoke City have marked Mancini's road to earning those of his own. The Italian replied, a little testily, at the incendiary first press conference that he did know the name Rory Delap and that Shay Given would do the necessary when Stoke arrived to present his first opposition, a few days later. He has encountered Stoke seven times since that first 2-0 win, been eliminated from an FA Cup by them, lifted the club's first silverware in front of them and, here, commanded a game in a way that few teams have against them.
Given is long gone but no worries: 72 per cent possession and a single serious attempt on City's goal told the story, against a side whose physical strength would once have ripped holes in Hughes' porous defence.
After a 14th successive home League win, Mancini compared visiting clubs' reverence for his own side with the culture of fear Manchester United create in Old Trafford opposition. "It is the same thing that happens against United," he said. "Teams who play against United play with fear and that's because for a long time its been very difficult against them."
The only meaningful test for City – and there have been remarkably few at a stadium where they have won 17 games and drawn once since Everton ruined their hopes of a first Christmas No 1 since 1929, last December – was to mark their extraordinary assault on the Premier League by scoring the competition's 20,000th goal. They actually started a little too early. There had been no inroads into the standing total of 19,989 when Adam Johnson's right foot shot deflected sharply off Marc Wilson's boot and looped over Thomas Sorensen, onto the crossbar.
When Sergio Aguero scored, the magical target was still seven goals off, though you fancied the Argentine to get them all, such was the ease of the first finish. David Silva began the work as precisely as he ices the cake on the City Christmas video which promises to be as much of a cult hit as last year's. Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany helped the ball onto Aguero who looked fractionally offside when he screwed it in. Johnson thrashed home City's second from 20 yards after Dean Whitehead cleared into trouble.
Aguero, 10-1 favourite to be the 20,000-goal man fired in two rapid shots after the restart, and it was by the narrowest of margins – about a minute – that he was denied a piece of statistical history. Aston Villa's Marc Albrighton had just claimed the prize, scoring against Arsenal, when Stoke were cut open again – just like another team wearing red and white, who provided the 6-1 scoreline marked in icing on the Christmas cake film – and Aguero claimed his 15th goal of the season. Gareth Barry funnelled the ball out right for Nasri, who crossed for the striker. All were granted ample time by Stoke.
Micah Richards presented the only mild concern, trudging off with an apparent hamstring strain which Mancini later made light of. "Every game in the end he [Richards] has a problem." said Mancini, tapping his glass. "Crystal! Fragile! I think he is OK." There was also the disappointment of a spurned fourth goal, when Johnson drove into Sorensen's legs in the dying seconds. But City go into Christmas with 44 points, the highest of any leaders at that stage of the season since 2006, when United had 47 points and went on to win the league in the following May with 89 points. "I'm happy for our supporters to have a good Christmas Day. I think it is important to stay there until the end of the season," Mancini reflected. This is no Oasis: that brighter day is here.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Richards (Savic, 59), Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; Barry, (Milner, 83) Y Toure; Johnson, Silva (Balotelli, 68), Nasri; Aguero. Substitutes not used Pantilimon, Zabaleta,K Toure, De Jong.
Stoke City (4-5-1): Sorensen; Woodgate (Diao, 80), Huth, Upson, Wilson; Shotton, Whitehead, Palacios, Walters, Jerome (Fuller, 68); Jones (Pennant, 74). Substitutes not used Begovic, Delap, Etherington, Arismendi.
Referee M Dean (Wirral).
Bridge denied Xmas break
Wayne Bridge's frustrations with manager Roberto Mancini led to a training ground row on Tuesday in which he challenged the Italian's decision to force him to train with Manchester City's reserves and yet deny him the same Christmas break as them.
Bridge has planned his Christmas having been told of the date when the reserves would be breaking for the holiday and, with a solitary Carling Cup appearance to his name this season, anticipated no part in a first-team set-up. But despite releasing Nedum Onuoha for the break, Mancini then informed Bridge that he must work with the senior squad. The timing was miserable for Bridge, who was desolate 24 hours earlier when Mancini reeled off a list of four potential City replacement left-backs for Sunday's match with Arsenal, with Aleksandr Kolarov and Gaël Clichy missing, leaving him apparently seventh in line. Stefan Savic, Pablo Zabaleta, Joleon Lescott and even young Karim Rekik are now ahead of him.
Though Arsenal's loss of Andre Santos until the spring leaves the club short of left-backs, there has been no indication that they are interested in taking Bridge.
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