Monday 1 May 2017

Agüero extends red-hot streak as gritty City get the job done

Stoke City 1-4 Manchester City

Raheem Sterling runs at Stoke defenders Ryan Shawcross and Phil Bardsley in Manchester City's victory Photo: Nick Potts
Raheem Sterling runs at Stoke defenders Ryan Shawcross and Phil Bardsley in Manchester City's victory Photo: Nick Potts

Sachin Nakrani

It may no longer be called the Britannia Stadium but this was one of those days that reminded you that the home of Stoke - now known as the bet365 Stadium - remains an intimidating venue for visiting opponents. The crowd are boisterous, the wind whips around you and the team you are facing are no mugs. Yet ultimately Manchester City got the job done and, in the process, maintained their perfect start under Pep Guardiola.

This was a frantic and full-bloodied affair that would have confirmed in the Catalan's mind the challenges posed by English football and in that regard it would have pleased him that his players came through it in a manner that not only saw them triumph but also show, following the midweek thrashing of Steaua Bucharest, that they have heart to go with all that talent. The visitors were more gritty than pretty, something that could not often have been said of them last season.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola applauds the fans after the match Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola applauds the fans after the match Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Sergio Agüero scored twice, to take his tally to six goals in three matches this season, while Nolito struck late on, getting his first and second goals for the club since arriving from Celta Vigo in the summer. For Stoke, it was a second game of the campaign without a win, and a 12th Premier League game without a clean sheet, but Mark Hughes' side should derive encouragement from how they performed here. They played well but simply came up against a better side.

Xherdan Shaqiri was on the front of the matchday programme but he was not in Stoke's side having been ruled out of with a calf injury. The Swiss playmaker's absence was a blow for the hosts but it at least provided Joe Allen with the opportunity to make his first start since arriving from Liverpool, having come on as a 78th-minute substitute in last week's 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough .

And the midfielder impressed early on against a City side that also contained one change from that which beat Bucharest 5-0, with Jesús Navas coming in for his compatriot Nolito. Joe Hart was once again on the bench, having been told by Guardiola that he is free to leave the club.

As had been the case for Liverpool last season and for Wales during Euro 2016, Allen passed the ball with assurance and was more than prepared to make strong challenges, as seen in the 14th and 16th minutes when he prevented Navas and ­Raheem Sterling respectively from ­charging towards Stoke's defence.

Manchester City's Kelechi Iheanacho (left) tries to keep control of the ball against Stoke City's Joe Allen Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Manchester City's Kelechi Iheanacho (left) tries to keep control of the ball against Stoke City's Joe Allen Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

In truth, there was aggression and ­purpose throughout the home team's ranks, with their plan clearly to stop City from getting into the sort of rhythm that makes them so dangerous. Alongside Allen, Glenn Whelan was his usual tenacious self while ahead of the pair Gianelli Imbula was using his muscular, imposing frame to full effect.

The plan was working against a City side that continued to press high up the pitch and look to dominate proceedings. Sterling was yet again impressing and came close to opening the scoring with a right-footed drive on 10 minutes that fizzed just over the bar, but otherwise the visitors were making little headway.

That was until the 26th minute when Ryan Shawcross was deemed to have tugged Nicolás Otamendi's arm as he looked to head Kevin De Bruyne's corner past Shay Given. The Argentinian did make contact with the ball but was clearly put off, and pulled back, by Shawcross, who was also booked by referee Mike Dean.

Agüero sent Given the wrong way with a side-footed finish and got his second nine minutes later, sending De Bruyne's free-kick past Given with a precise header from close range. City were now well and truly in control yet Stoke rightly felt they were wrongly denied the chance to get back into the contest seven minutes before the interval. Aleksandar Kolarov clearly fouled Allen inside the area, but this time Dean did not point to the spot.

The hosts did not stew on that ­moment and instead started the second half brightly, with Allen yet again central to all that was positive to their play. And it was from his corner on 48 minutes that Stoke did get back into the contest after Dean deemed Sterling to have fouled Shawcross as he looked to make connection with the set-piece.

Sterling put his hands on the defender but the contact was slight and there was no escaping the feeling that the referee awarded the penalty to Stoke on the back of having not done so late in the first half.

Regardless, Bojan scored and the volume among the home supporters rose.

This could have been the moment City crumbled but instead the visitors refocused and dug in, with their collective defiance perhaps best typified in the 58th minute when Navas sprinted back inside his own area to prevent Marko Arnautovic from having a free shot on goal.

Stoke rarely threatened from thereon in and instead it was City who scored two more times. Two substitutes combined for the first goal, with Kelechi Iheanacho crossing for Nolito to strike from close range. The Spaniard then finished in similar fashion five minutes into stoppage time after being put through by Sterling.

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