This was a scrappy scruffy encounter but no less satisfying for City as they recorded their 5th straight win and continued their run of no goals conceded this calendar year.
Stoke were obdurate and at times ugly, with Glen Whelan somehow avoiding a red card for his two footed stamping challenge on Javi Garcia, but they were ultimately limited and unthreatening opponents. Satisfaction abounds in a number of forms for City...ending the Britannia hoodoo to record Mancini’s first victory at this stadium, the aforementioned clean sheet, that man Zabaleta again proving inspirational, and keeping Stoke at arms length despite a number of tactual adjustments largely forced on the Blues through injury and a lack defensive options.
It is always a concern for City when the key figure of Kompany is absent from play but the initial concern when he departed with half an hour played was that he had damaged his ankle. It later transpired that a calf strain was to blame for his premature exit. He will surely be a doubt for the midweek trip down to Loftus Road and has to be an outsider to make the Liverpool encounter at the weekend.
By the time they lost their captain, City had largely been in control of proceedings without taking advantage of the opportunities that had come their way. David Silva was unlucky in the extreme not to score from a lovely curled attempt 15 minutes in and Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko both found space and time in the box but on a number of occasions failed to find the clinical touch. Indeed it is this lack of a ruthless streak that is perhaps the only concern with how the club are progressing of late as they are now as defensively tight as at any stage under Mancini’s reign. Neither of the front two here or indeed Aguero who joined proceedings with half an hour remaining have consistently delivered the performances they are capable of over the course of the season. With Mario Balotelli’s future by no means decided, this is no time for the forward men to be resting on their laurels.
Relying on set plays and their physical prowess to upset the champions, Stoke were repelled by Joleon Lescott – again preferred to Nastasic when facing Stoke this season - who admirably marshalled a frequently changing defence with Clichy and Zabaleta alongside him before Garcia dropped back to centre half as City reconfigured the back line again as they pushed for the win in the second half. Javi Garcia and Gareth Barry were steady presences throughout, even if they fail to offer the pace and dynamism of the absent Yaya Toure. Unfortunately for Milner, with Nasri waiting in the wings following his suspension, he chose the wrong time to produce a display where his final ball was both lacking in imagination and execution. The same could not be said of the little Spaniard Silva, who followed his match-winning exploits against Fulham last week with another excellent performance here. He really is in a nice groove at the minute and there are fewer better when he is.
And so to the match-winner and acting captain, Pablo Zabaleta. It is hard to think of a player who garners more affection from the City faithful than the Argentinian fullback who is now receiving wider media attention for his consistently excellent displays down the right flank. Winning possession deep in his own half, using the ball intelligently and then driving forward the length of the field to coolly prod the ball past Sorenson, this goal surmised all that is great and good about the fans favourite. Readers of this blog will be used to the sight of Zabaleta being selected as the man of the match and indeed the overall belief that he has been City’s star man of the season to date. That run continues again here.
Tricky fixtures await this week with relegation battling Q.P.R. in opposition tomorrow with a defence hampered by the absence of Kompany, Toure and now Nastasic, believed to be stricken with a knee ligament strain. There may be little option but to revert to a back three for that and the Liverpool game at the weekend. With a home fixture against Spurs slaying Leeds in the next round of the F.A. Cup, the Blues may be somewhat depleted, but are very much in the hunt for silverware on two fronts.
Man of the Match: Pablo Zabaleta