STOKE CITY dismantled title-favourites Manchester City at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon as the Potters chalked up their fourth successive home victory.
Mark Hughes’ side produced without doubt their most silky showing of the campaign as they picked off the Blues rear-guard time and time again en-route to a momentous victory.
Marko Arnautovic was the match-winner with his two expertly taken strikes during a stunning first 45 minutes, but it was the craft of Club record signing Xherdan Shaqiri that left the majority of the supports in attendance purring.
The ‘Alpine Messi’ lived up to his tagging, leaving the likes of Martin Demichelis and Aleksander Kolarov in all of a twist as he wreaked havoc amongst the visitors backline.
His two stunning balls in behind fed Austrian maverick Arnautovic who displayed his newly found goalscoring touch by netting his fourth and fifth efforts of the season.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side came into the encounter, which was being screened live on BT Sport, at the summit of the Barclays Premier League having claimed 29 points from their opening 14 games, however they simply had no answer for the classy Potters.
From the off the warning signs were evident that the visitors wouldn’t be having it all their own way as the hosts displayed more creativity and panache in possession.
In fact, barely seven minutes had elapsed by the time Arnautovic opened the scoring for the afternoon after stealing a march on Demichelis and meeting Shaqiri’s stunning centre with real aplomb.
The pair, who were unplayable throughout, linked up again once more eight minutes later with the outcome being identical.
Shaqiri, a £12 million capture from Inter Milan in the summer, made a fool of Fernando in the centre of the pitch with his sublime skill, before taking one touch and feeding a delicious through ball into the path of Arnautovic, who made absolutely no mistake from 12-yards.
The Austrian very nearly has his hat-trick midway through the first period when he headed inches wide of the target after being picked out superbly by the industrious Republic of Ireland international Glenn Whelan.
The Barclays Premier League leaders were stunned, and so were their travelling army of supporters. For all of their undoubted quality on show, there was nothing they could do to thwart Hughes’ incredibly confident outfit.
That said, they had something to cheer when Aleksander Kolarov forced a superb save from Jack Butland at the near-post, with that, and an earlier effort from Kevin de Bruyne, being their only serious forays forward.
A 2-0 lead at the break was what Hughes would have been dreaming of prior to the lunchtime kick-off, but when Shaqiri produced another scintillating through ball for Arnautovic to run on to on the stroke of the interval, it was very nearly three.
Hart, who was enduring a frustrating return to action, watched on with horror as the forward closed in on him and pulled the trigger once more, letting rip an effort that flew past him but agonisingly cannoned back off the post and away from danger.
There was always going to be some form of resurgence following the break and whilst the visitors did up the ante in terms of ball retention, they rarely threatened to breach the Potters watertight backline.
The partnership of Geoff Cameron and Whelan in the middle was outstanding – and it reaped the benefits it so deserved when Pellegrini opted to pull off fans-favourite Fernandinho after he was left short changed time after time by the pair.
Ibrahim Afellay, deployed in the slightly more advanced role, oozed class – his confidence and calmness on the ball was key to retaining control of the game during the early parts of the second 45 minutes.
Bojan, meanwhile, who was deployed in the lone striker role as part of Hughes’ new look formation, was a constant nuisance, and his creativity and delicacy on the ball was pivotal to him starring in a position that he hasn’t featured in regularly in North Staffordshire.
The former Barcelona ace surged forward on the hour mark, flicked the ball through Nicolas Otamnedi’s legs and thought he had added to the tally before Hart stuck out a hand and superbly denied him, with Arnautovic then volleying the rebound into the side-netting.
At the other end, Butland provided the answers to any questions posed of him – all be them relatively simple ones. He showed good hands to gather a long-range de Bruyne strike whilst he comfortably clawed a David Silva strike into his chest.
Pellegrini thrust youngster Kelechi Iheanacho into the action as he grew frustrated by the lack of threat from Wilfried Bony, whilst Fabian Delph and the pacey Jesus Navas were also introduced in a bid to revitalise his struggling troops.
They gave a different test to the home side, but still it was them who created the best opportunity of the second period when Arnautovic unselfishly opted to square the ball to Shaqiri when he had the chance to pull the trigger, but the Swiss somehow failed to make contact two-yards out.
Hughes utilised the changes available to him too, relinquishing the outstanding Shaqiri of his duties at the expense of the more defensive-minded Marco van Ginkel, whilst Joselu and Jonathan Walters were late arrivals as the Welshman looked to tick down the clock.
The final whistle brought with it scenes of jubilation around the stadium as the Potters faithful lauded their heroes for another superb showing against one of the biggest sides in Europe.