Home » EPL, Latest » Match Report: Man City 3 Stoke 0

Manchester City will be top of the league at Christmas for the first time since 1929 and playing as though they also expect to be there come the end of the season. They have dropped only two points at home throughout 2011 and won this game with so much to spare that their supporters could be forgiven for wondering what joys are to follow after the turn of the year.

Roberto Mancini’s team managed to combine being rampant and reserved at the same time. They have now scored three or more times in 12 of their 17 league fixtures, and could almost certainly have made it even more of an ordeal for Stoke if they had been in the mood. As it was there was the clear sense of a team holding something back, while still operating at a far superior level to their opponents. It was as one-sided as it gets at this level, Sergio Agüero adding another two goals to his collection and Adam Johnson reminding us of his eye for the spectacular with a wonderfully-taken effort. In the process they also passed a vital test that will no doubt be replicated many times before the end of the season. Stoke’s tactics were based purely on conservatism, with Wilson Palacios sitting in front of their defence and all the visiting midfielders dropping back, inviting pressure. Tony Pulis’s side arrived on the back of four straight league wins, their best run in the Premier League era, but there was never any sense that they actually believed they could create an upset. In truth, there were long spells when it simply felt like an exercise in damage limitation. No other team has been so defence-minded at the Etihad this season.

Their plan was to frustrate but what they discovered was that Mancini’s squad is packed with players such as David Silva and Yaya Touré, who can find a way behind busy defences. The pressure was unrelenting at times, a straight battle between the home side’s attack and the opposition’s defence, and though Stoke looked resolute at first, this is no longer a stadium where the crowd become jumpy if the game takes longer to turn in their favour than they would like.

The league leaders took their time to get the measure of their opponents but their dominance was rewarded just before the half-hour when Silva threaded the ball into Touré’s path and, for the first time, the home players were not outnumbered in the Stoke penalty area. Vincent Kompany had advanced forward from defence and applied the first touch to Touré’s centre. The goalkeeper, Thomas Sorensen, parried the shot and Agüero was first to the rebound to score his first of the night from close range.

After that it was futile for Stoke to stick to their original plan, but the second goal arrived within seven minutes and from that point an air of inevitability descended. For the first goal, Pulis could be seen angrily making a case that Agüero had strayed into an offside position. This time, it was simply a case of wretched defending, and a reminder of Johnson’s ability to strike the ball from outside the penalty area. His shot was unerring, beating Sorensen with power and precision, but the chance was presented by Dean Whitehead’s poor pass from inside his own penalty area. Jonathan Walters could not get the ball under control and Johnson, with one typically elegant swish of his left foot, made them pay for their generosity.

Perhaps the most impressive part was that Mancini’s men could win so convincingly while also conspicuously a level or two below their best. The simple truth was they did not have to play to their maximum. Nine minutes into the second half, Samir Nasri’s low cross set up an unmarked Agüero to score his second from close range and, after that, it was simply a question of how many more they would add.

It was almost surprising that they did not go on to win more convincingly. Instead, this was a team conserving energy for a gruelling schedule. Yet the gulf in class between the two sides was still evident. Johnson was outstanding on the wing, Agüero probed and menaced while Gareth Barry continued his impressive form. At the opposite end, Joe Hart may not have an easier 90 minutes all season.

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