The Britannia Stadium witnessed the kind of spectacle that Sheikh Mansour must have dreamed of when he began investing his billions in English football in 2008. It was all about nimble-footed forwards playing sparkling, attacking football and transforming the image of their football club.
The problem for Manchester City was that it was Stoke City producing that spectacle and the irony of that will not have been lost on Mark Hughes, Stoke’s manager, who lasted just 15 months as manager at Eastlands after the Abu Dhabi takeover.
On a miserable afternoon for City, who slipped to third place in the Premier League, Stoke showed just how far they have come under Hughes and in the process raised fresh doubts about his old club’s title credentials. They tore City apart through the attacking trio of Bojan, Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic, who settled this contest with two goals inside the first 15 minutes. There was a cold wind inside the Britannia but it was The Potters’ strikers who left Manuel Pellegrini’s head spinning.
The City manager’s side had begun the day as league leaders but looked a team entirely bereft of backbone. In mitigation they were missing the spine of their team – Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré and Sergio Agüero – but that hardly justified a display that was even worse than when they lost 4-1 to Liverpool two weeks ago. Pellegrini argued that his team “didn’t play with the energy we need to win” and suggested that competing on four fronts had taken its toll, limiting his options. “We played very badly because we are playing with the same players,” he said, though sympathy for a club with City’s riches is likely to be scarce.
Stoke, too, had played in the Capital One Cup in midweek – and made fewer changes than City’s five – though crucially Bojan and Shaqiri had looked on from the bench that night. Hughes was holding them back for yesterday when, for the first time, he played Bojan as his central attacker, flanked by Shaqiri and Arnautovic. It worked a treat. Hughes said: “I wanted to get on the front foot and win the ball in City’s defensive half and then release creative players in and around the box and allow them the freedom and flexibility to create in that final third.”
Shaqiri was the architect of the early breakthrough, skipping away from Fernando as the Brazilian dived in, then running at Aleksandar Kolarov before firing a low ball into the six-yard box. Joe Hart and Martin Demechelis both looked on as it flew past the near post and Arnautovic arrived to convert.
The same Shaqiri-Arnautovic combination produced the second goal. Fernando was the fall guy again as Shaqiri span away from him and threaded a wonderful ball into the path of Arnautovic, breaking beyond Bacary Sagna and finishing past Hart. It has taken Shaqiri, Stoke’s £12m record signing, time to deliver since his arrival from Internazionale, but this was his best display yet.
With City being overrun, Arnautovic ought to have completed a first-half hat-trick. He put a header into the sidenetting, then slipped and scooped a chance on to a post.
Butland later ensured his fifth clean sheet in six games by stopping a Kolarov shot with his foot, leaving Pellegrini to lament: “It is not just a matter of defending badly, we didn’t create chances today also.”
Stoke: (4-2-3-1) Butland; Johnson, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Pieters; Cameron, Whelan; Shaqiri (Van Ginkel, 77), Afellay (Walters, 85), Arnautovic; Bojan (Joselu, 72).
Manchester City: (4-2-3-1) Hart; Sagna, Demichelis, Otamendi, Kolarov; Fernandinho (Delph, 57), Fernando; Silva (Navas, 62), De Bruyne, Sterling; Bony (Iheanacho, 57)
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Man of the match: Bojan (Stoke)
Match rating: 8/10
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