Take your time Yaya. Put your feet up Bony. The champions at Manchester City turned up in the end to stand the African cavalry down and re-state for half a game at least their determination to chase Chelsea to the wire.
Stoke can blame themselves for having the temerity to shiver City’s timbers in a robust opening that suggested the recent decline at the Etihad might indeed be terminal. Perhaps Manuel Pellegrini shed his urbane calm at the break to remind his players of the demand in rum terms.
City are not only in pursuit of Chelsea, they are supposed to be creating legends to rival the red half of the city. To do that it is not enough to win a title, it must be retained and more besides. City are in the foothills of that journey, and for 45 minutes it looked a responsibility beyond them.
They went ahead against the run of play and might have been a couple down by the time Sergio Aguero exploded into the box after collecting Aleksander Kolarov’s hopeful punt out of the City box.
Stoke were level through Peter Crouch five minutes later, and though City might have taken the lead on the stroke of half-time, it would have been a travesty had they done so.
The second half was a different story. First James Milner with a beauty and then Aguero from the spot ripped the heart out of Stoke’s resistance. Samir Nasri’s fourth amounted to justifiable showboating, a fine strike with his right foot into the roof of the net.
Edin Dzeko, on as a sub for Aguero, ought to have made it five, and arguably would have done had his boots been even half warm.
With City out of the FA Cup, the returning African champions from the Ivory Coast, Yaya Touré and Wilfried Bony, can be eased back into the maelstrom of the Premier League when City pick up the thread at home to Newcastle the following weekend.
The game was only four minutes old when Aguero butchered the kind of opening he would ordinarily bury with his eyes closed. David Silva wrestled the ball off Philipp Wollscheid on the edge of the box before squaring to Aguero, who scuffed a weak effort at Asmir Begovic.
Two minutes later Hart fumbled a shot from Victor Moses and from the resulting corner Milner appeared to handle Crouch’s header. To Milner’s relief the referee waved play on.
The Premier League has no pause button. Stoke were all over a rattled City in the opening 20 minutes, during which Crouch had a goal chalked off for offside and Moses took the paint off a post with a rasping shot from distance.
City had not won in Stoke since 1999 when both teams moved in a different orbit in the football firmament. Who would have predicted City’s ascent then?
After a run of six games with only one win City needed to demonstrate their credentials here to reboot their title challenge. From nowhere Aguero obliged, latching on to the newly fashionable hoof out of defence, advancing on goal and hammering the ball past Begovic.
As good as the finish was, it was a harsh judgment on Stoke, who had been the more coherent side. Injured skipper Ryan Shawcross had expressed the belief that they would do the double over City after winning at the Etihad in August. His argument was based not on City’s flaky form but Stoke’s enhanced template. The ball moves neatly through the phases and at pace. The truth of that was rammed home within five minutes of falling behind, Crouch stooping to head the equaliser after a well-worked move down the right finished with a laser cross from Marko Arnautovic.
City thought they had edged in front on the stroke of half-time when Aguero forced home Silva’s goal-bound shot. As the players flocked to congratulate him, referee Lee Mason interrupted the party to present Aguero with a yellow card for handball.
City could have no complaints and neither could Stoke when the visitors legitimately took the lead for a second time 10 minutes after the break in a move redolent of City at their best.
A rapid break down the right featuring a mesmeric sequence of passes between Pablo Zabaleta, Silva and Nasri achieved the end it deserved when Milner rose to convert the latter’s cross, sending a powerful header past Begovic.
City were a different proposition now, though to their credit Stoke were never less than eager. Mame Biram Diouf should have done better when racing on to a pass from Steven Nzonzi and Moses was just over with a curling free-kick.
Minutes later Geoff Cameron was adjudged to have taken down Silva in the box, inviting Aguero to shoot at goal from 12 yards. No contest, the penalty slotted neatly inside the right-hand post.
Stoke: Begovic; Cameron, Wollscheid, Muniesa, Bardsley; Arnautovic, Nzonzi, Whelan, Moses; Diouf, Crouch.
Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala, Kolarov, Fernando, Fernandinho, Nasri, Milner, Silva, Aguero
Substitutions: Stoke Sidwell (Moses, 80), Adam (Whelan, 85), Shenton (N’Zonzi, 90); Manchester City Dzeko (Agüero, 73), Lampard (Silva, 80), Navas (Nasri, 86).
Man of the match Aguero
Match rating 8/10.
Referee L Mason (Lancashire)