A frustrating night for Pep Guardiola and his men as a strong defensive display from Stoke denies any hope of closing the gap on Chelsea.
Man City strolled out into a lifeless Etihad stadium to challenge a Stoke City side who had consecutively shipped 4 against England’s elite, never before had Pep’s sky blue side not scored at home but as we saw in the Champions League, the 8th March was a night for record breakers.
From the start Stoke had a strong game plan in place – when moving forward allow full backs to assist but maintain a strong core. Both Cameron and Allen, occupying the central midfield roles, meticulously positioned themselves in any alleys the sturdy back four showed when City were pressing.
For most of the first half they frustrated the lacklustre City side and produced the best goal opportunity in the 5th minute when Diouf made minor contact with Pieters’ cross. Just 10 minutes later they countered again, this time the refreshingly diligent Berahino released Ramadan Sobhi on the left who wrong footed Otamendi but his final product was absent.
City, roused by this uncharacteristic Stoke side, retorted moments after with Kolarov bulleting a 30 yard free kick to Lee Grant’s near post which was easily parried by the 33 year-old, this turning out to be City’s only shot on target during the game. A hilarious Yaya Toure handball later and the whistle went for half time in what signalled the long-awaited end for any journalist opting out of European football.
The second half saw City rejuvenated, Aguero had a finessed effort denied by the granite-like forehead of Pieters early on, with Pep encouraged by his team trying to negotiate the permanently parked Stoke bus. But it wasn’t until 56th minute when we saw the real game changer, a David Silva shaped inhaler came on to stabilise the out-of-breath asthmatic City side and everything seemed to click. The Spaniard’s first cross resulted in a wayward shot from Sane, then a combination of 1-2’s with de Bruyne created some of City’s closest opportunities of the game, the last ending with a shot from Silva skimming an inch wide of Grant’s far post.
Yet on nights like this, Guardiola will be thinking what the enigma of English football is as his side came close to Pepping to the post (pardon the pun) in the closing minutes but to no avail. A mesmerising pitbull-like run from Aguero saw Shawcross sheppard the shot into the side netting, and a volley of de Bruyne sourced centres saw both Iheanacho and Aguero miss the chance to get a winner in the final minute.
All in all, City were resolute in their attempt to win the game but Stoke’s defence were too well organised. A man of the match performance from Shawcross spurred his team mates to emulate similarly impressive performances and resulted in them earning a well-deserved point. City, on the other hand, lack the Guardiola full backs of Barca and Bayern and without their best attacking flair playing, pulled up short in providing the goods.
The gap remains at 10 points between them and leaders Chelsea, with Liverpool, Arsenal and the aforementioned London side being their next 3 domestic fixtures, you cant help but think their ambition now is to secure Champions League football for next season.