Roberto Mancini was so incensed with referee Howard Webb he did not trust himself to face the media after Manchester City lost ground in the race for the title after a continuation of their stuttering away form left them top of the Premier League table only on goal difference, with Manchester United at home to Fulham tomorrow evening.
The Italian felt Webb had failed to give his players adequate protection from what he perceived as rough tactics from a home side renowned for being fiercely competitive, particularly after midfielder Dean Whitehead had escaped unpunished after an aerial challenge that left David Silva with a cut to the side of his head. Whitehead could not be accused of elbowing the Spaniard but clearly caught him with a straight left arm as the two contested a high ball midway through the first half.
“Roberto was worried that he might say something that would land himself in hot water,” assistant manager David Platt explained, having been sent to answer questions in his place. “He will be OK when he calms down but he is a bit hot at the moment about the way that the game unfolded. You know what he is like, something might go out that is lost in translation or whatever. There is no point in me having a go at him (the referee). You know what to expect when you come here but you look I suppose for a bit of protection.”
Had Whitehead been punished with a red card, which would have been harsh, the story might have been different. As it was, a Stoke side yet to be beaten by a top six side at home this season, conformed to their reputation, playing robust, direct football which unsettled their opponents from the outset.
Their manager, Tony Pulis, claimed not to have seen the incident and would not comment. “People can say what they like about us,” he said. “It was a competitive game and a great performance from us.” Stoke deserved a point for the quality of the goal with which Crouch gave them the lead in the in the 60th minute, a superb volley which he may never better.
Mancini, who had been deprived of one Argentine when Sergio Aguero cried off through an ankle injury, again sent on his compatriot, Carlos Tevez, late in the game in the hope that their reconciliation might yield fruit again, as it had against Chelsea last week.
In the event, Yaya Touré came up with an equaliser, helped by a deflection, salvaging a point but failing to dispel doubts over City’s resolve in their bid to claim the major prize.
Stoke seem always to find something extra on such occasions. This season, Tottenham have lost here while United and Chelsea could do no better than draw. There was an extra incentive this time, moreover, with a measure of revenge to be sought for the defeat in last year’s FA Cup final and they flew at Mancini’s team with purpose from the start, too vigorously for Mancini, whose anger at the lack of punishment for Whitehead was compounded when Gareth Barry was booked for a comparatively minor pull on Jerome’s shirt.
Steadily, City began to gain a greater share of possession, Silva and Samir Nasri offering plenty of movement behind Edin Dzeko, who had started in place of Aguero, with Mario Balotelli often playing deep. They did not use Dzeko’s height as much as they might have but there was a chance for the Bosnian at the far post from which he should at least have tested Asmir Begovic, although TV replays suggested Gaël Clichy got away with dragging the ball back from out of play before he crossed from the left.
Before half-time Stoke thought they were in front when a deflection off Barry wrong-footed Hart as he attempted to deal with another Etherington cross. However, Pablo Zabaleta managed to hook the ball away right under the crossbar. The moment that had the stadium rocking came in the shape of a stunning goal from Crouch, first winning the ball in the air from Begovic’s long punt, teeing it up for himself as Pennant, just on as substitute, nodded it back to him, and then wrapping his long right leg around a magnificent volley from wide on the right that soared past Joe Hart into the opposite corner of the goal. The Stoke fans celebrated with an outbreak of their opponents’ Poznan dance that spread quickly to all corners of the stadium, following up with a rendition of ‘Delilah’ as deafening as they can ever have mustered.
Mancini sent on Tevez, so decisive against Chelsea last week, with 16 minutes left but found salvation in Yaya Touré, whose venomous 35-yard shot was steered past Asmir Begovic by Ryan Shawcross’s attempted interception. The goal saved City from deeper blushes but did not dispel the doubts over their resolve in the race for the title, even though Platt insisted: “The title will not be decided by one performance.”
Stoke (4-4-2): Begovic; Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson; Jerome (Pennant, 51), Whitehead, Whelan, Etherington (Palacios, 81); Walters, Crouch (Jones, 90).
Manchester City (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaleta (Milner, 83), Richards, Kolo Touré; Clichy; Silva (Johnson, 63), Yaya Touré, Barry (Tevez, 74), Nasri; Balotelli, Dzeko.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Crouch (Stoke)
Match rating: 8/10