STOKE CITY maintained their excellent unbeaten record against Manchester City at the Britannia Stadium in an absorbing encounter . . . but it took injury-time heroics from Asmir Begovic and Ryan Shawcross to hold onto a point.
Begovic produced a stunning reflex save to keep out a close range header from Javi Garcia, but that was topped by an acrobatic goal-line clearance from Shawcross when it appeared that substitute Edin Dzeko had snatched the winner.
The Potters had gone in front through record signing Peter Crouch, just as they had done in the same fixture last season, but that fourteenth minute effort was cancelled out by a header from Spanish star Garcia on his debut.
This was the fourth time in succession that the two sides have drawn 1-1 in the Premier League at the Britannia Stadium and the champions have not won in the Potteries since Tony Pulis’ side were promoted to the top-flight.
The other two occasions ended in victories for the home side, in the first season in the Premier League and then an FA Cup replay.
A point was probably a fair result in the end, although the champions must have throught they were going to win it right at the death.
Pulis handed home debuts to Adam and N’Zonzi, while Owen was, as expected in the circumstances, named among the substitutes.
There were a number of notable absentees from the Manchester City line-up with Aguero and Milner not included in the matchday squad, while Silva, Rodwell and Dzeko had to be content with places on the substitutes’ bench.
Not surprisingly, there was a tremendous atmosphere as the game got underway in brilliant sunshine with the Potters working hard to close the champions down when they were in possession as they attacked the Boothen End.
After a period of sustained pressure, Sinclair opened the way for Clichy to threaten down the left flank on the overlap and he whipped over a menacing cross which carried all the way across to the far post where it was eventually cleared.
It took until the twelfth minute for the Potters to have an opportunity to put some pressure on the visitors defence courtesy of a free kick won by Wilkinson on the right, but Hart came off his line to claim Whelan’s ball into the box.
The stadium erupted moments later, however, when the home side went in front as they made the most of their first corner of the game.
Whelan’s delivery this time caused problems for the visitors’ defence and it carried through to Walters at the far post.
The Republic of Ireland international cleverly hooked it back into the danger area where Crouch brought it under control and wriggled past Lescott. Although his first attempt at goal was mis-hit, he ploughed forward to bury a low shot into the bottom corner as the visitors protested that the striker had handled the ball in the process.
The champions probed for an immediate response and there was a let-off for Pulis’ men when Balotelli turned on a sixpence and unleashed a left foot shot which was only fractionally too high as it flashed over the crossbar.
Another corner for the Potters caused more havoc for the visitors as Adam swung the ball to the edge of the six yard box where Crouch was only inches from getting a decisive touch with his head only for the referee to blow for a foul.
Tevez was drifting deeper and deeper in an attempt to create an opening for Mancini’s side and ten minutes before the break he set up the equaliser.
A free kick was awarded for a foul on Sinclair and when Tevez whipped it into the danger zone, Garcia was unmarked as he headed home a debut goal.
It could have got a lot worse for the Potters moments later when a deep cross into the box from Sinclair found the advancing Maicon whose first time volley was creeping in at the near post before Begovic got down to save one-handed to his left.
The half ended with the champions carving out another good opportunity as Tevez, having drifted deep once again, burst forward onto a clever backheel from Balotelli but fortunately his left foot shot was directed straight at Begovic.
The Potters began the second half on the frontfoot and there was one moment when another Crouch wonder goal seemed on the cards.
The England striker smartly brought an instinctive pass from Adam under control with his chest and as he was about to pull the trigger with a volley from the edge of the box, Toure nipped in to pinch the ball off his right foot.
The promising start was maintained and when Adam fed the ball wide to Kightly, he tried a first time shot which was charged down by Maicon.
Though further opportunities were created by the home side as the noise level rose, they were almost dealt a blow out of nothing.
Predictably, it was Toure who gave them a scare as he advanced forward and the ball broke kindly to him at the crucial moment, leaving him with a clear path to goal, but Begovic was alert to the danger and saved the firm shot with his leg.
While Mancini opted to withdraw Tevez for Barry, Pulis then made a positive move by introducing Etherington for Kightly on the left wing.
The champions then threw on Silva and having taken the sting out of the Potters’ vibrant start to the half showed menacing signs themselves.
Pulis responded to that by sending on Cameron in place of the tiring Adam who had produced an impressive home debut.
The American international was deployed in a deep midfield role to shield the defence against the mounting threat from the visitors.
It took a good reaction save from Begovic to keep out a low shot from Nasri when he cut inside from the left hand side before Shawcross and Wilkinson combined to complete the clearance as they resisted another City attack.
In the final minute of normal time, Owen was handed his debut in place of Crouchm while Dzeko rwas a straight replacement for Balotelli.
The champions had two excellent chances right at the death to snatch all three points as Begovic pulled off a stunning one-handed save to keep out a close range header from Garcia before Shawcross produced his last ditch heroics.
Dzeko must have thought he had won the game as his shot beat the advancing Begovic from 25 yards out but the Potters skipper got back to clear it off the line to leave the game locked up at one apiece, the fourth draw in as many games.