There are not many memories of the Etihad Stadium for Mark Hughes to cherish. Managerially, Manchester City was his taste of big money and big football. He was given a Hollywood budget, and his time since his messy sacking has been spent in the realisation he would probably never again see the views from football’s Beverly Hills. This result was a further indication that he is still one the finest managers in the Premier League.
“I have no axe to grind,“ he said of his time at City between June 2008 and December 2009. “I was here as the manager and it did not last as long as it could have done but there you go. I am at a good club now.”
Hughes will always remember the final whistle as the rain spewed down over Manchester; the walk across to Manuel Pellegrini, the firm handshake and then turning to the Stoke fans chorusing their battle hymn “Delilah” and applauding. Only one manager has beaten Pellegrini at home in the Premier League; Jose Mourinho.
Very few of those who travelled up the M6 from Staffordshire would have expected anything other than a defeat. Stoke had played six Premier League matches at the Etihad Stadium and lost the lot without scoring so much as a goal.
The one that settled this match was worth the wait. With the champions pressing unconvincingly for the goal that virtually everybody in the stadium knew would settle another City home win, Stoke cleared their lines from David Silva’s corner and Mame Diouf began running. It took him three quarters of the length of the pitch. He drove past Aleksandar Kolarov and a half-hearted challenge from Fernandinho, who was supposed to be Joe Hart’s last line of defence.
For someone who keeps goal for England, Hart does not inspire confidence in situations such as these. Diouf beat him easily, sliding his shot through the keeper’s legs. Moments later, he nearly did the same, almost turning home a low cross from Peter Odemwingie, who injured his knee in the process and had to be taken off on a stretcher.
Like Hughes, Manchester was Diouf’s shot at the big time. Sir Alex Ferguson brought him to United from Molde five years ago but his football was played on loan at Blackburn. This display, which included a reasonable shout for a penalty when Kolarov appeared to trip him in the first half, was an indication of what caught Ferguson’s eye.
These days, Manchester City possess the kind of aura that United once enjoyed at Old Trafford. Teams come here, half expecting to be beaten and matches become routine. This had a similar feel. You wondered if Stoke had scored too soon, then surveyed the firepower available to Pellegrini and asked yourself how long it would be before they broke through.
Stoke, with Ryan Shawcross marshalling his back four manfully, held out. The champions pushed forward but their attacks were ponderous and lacked focus. Stevan Jovetic, who had been irresistible against Liverpool on Monday night, was far too deep, driven back by the red-and-white wall in front of him. Too often he got under Silva’s feet.
“We tried to be patient, we tried to break them down, we couldn’t create space, we had a bad day,” reflected Pellegrini, who had lost Fernando to injury in the first half. “We did not play well but this is not a game we should have lost 1-0. It was too easy the way they scored from a counter-attack from their own box. These are the kind of games that happen once a year.”
In terms of goals, the greatest contribution to Manchester City’s second championship in three seasons came from Yaya Touré. He was once more the greatest threat to Asmir Begovic’s goal.
In stoppage time before the interval he had driven the ball on to the crossbar after Sergio Aguero had fed Kolarov with a delightful back-heel. After the interval, he saw a deflected shot fizz wide that half the stadium celebrated as a goal. Touré lay on his back grinning hugely.
The next time he went down in the area there were fewer smiles. Erik Pieters made a wild challenge and Touré fell spectacularly enough for the referee, Lee Mason, to book him for diving. Television replays suggested a penalty. When asked about it, Pellegrini attempted to be diplomatic and then could not help himself, saying he would not talk about referees then condemning Mason’s decision.
This time last year, with transfer deadline-day looming and Radamel Falcao being touted by Monaco on loan for £20m, Manchester City would have reacted by signing the striker just because they could.
In the first day of the Abu Dhabi takeover they had bought Robinho for Hughes and, half-jokingly, said they were prepared to pay £132m for Cristiano Ronaldo.
That was Manchester City before Financial Fair Play. “These are just rumours,” said Pellegrini, reacting to news Falcao had been withdrawn from the Monaco squad to play Lille yesterday. “We have important restrictions about how much money we can spend and how many foreign players we can use. It is not easy for us.” Last night Falcao indicated he was leaning towards Real Madrid.
Manchester City: (4-2-3-1) Hart; Sagna, Kompany, Demichelis, Kolarov; Touré, Fernando (Fernandinho, 37) ; Nasri (Navas, 63), Aguero, Silva; Jovetic (Dzeko, 63).
Stoke City: (4-3-2-1) Begovic; Bardsley, Shawcross, Wilson, Pieters; N’Zonzi, Whelan, Diouf; Walters (Odemwingie h-t; Adam, 64), Moses (Muniesa, 80); Crouch.
Referee: Lee Mason
Man of the match: Shawcross (Stoke)
Match rating: 7/10
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies