MARKO ARNAUTOVIC stole the show at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon as his second half brace helped his side to three precious points against struggling Aston Villa.
The Austrian maverick calmly stroked home a well-take spot kick shortly after the interval to fire the hosts in front after Ashley Westwood had clumsily brought down Phil Bardsley inside the 18-yard box.
He was at it again just a few minutes later when he displaying incredible composure to chest home his tenth of the season after controlling Xherdan Shaqiri’s pin-point centre in typical showman style.
Villa needed a minor miracle if they were to get themselves back into the encounter, and give themselves the slightest chance of bridging the gap between themselves, at the foot of the table, and the cluster of sides above.
They huffed and puffed in a bid to drag themselves back into the game, and Remi Garde did his utmost too - introducing Scott Sinclair and Rudy Gestede from the bench in a bid to revive his troops’ dwindling fortunes.
In fairness, they grew into the game as it wore on but whether that was due to an improvement on their part or more down to the fact that the Potters players were somewhat taking their foot off the gas remains anybody’s guess.
Still, they gave themselves a glimmer of hope 12 minutes from time when the referee waved play on following an obvious handball from Gestede, much to the frustration of the hesitant Erik Pieters who watched in horror as Leandro Bacuna met the free ball and thumped it into the far corner of the net.
All of a sudden the game was back alive.
Villa’s travelling army of around 3,000 were beginning to make themselves heard and some uncharacteristic hesitancy within the City backline caused a couple of moments of panic.
Mark Hughes, who had just moments earlier replaced Jonathan Walters and Ibrahim Afellay with Bojan and Joselu, was flinging his arms about as he looked for his side to regain the composure that saw them move into what appeared to have been an unassailable lead just 20 minutes earlier.
Thankfully, they responded to his calls and could have added to their tally with the likes of Giannelli Imbula, who impressed once more in central midfield, and Arnautovic, who attempted an acrobatic effort, both going close.
For the visitors, the result didn’t quite confirm their drop down to the Championship, but it certainly added to their worries, whilst for the home side, the European dream remained firmly alive, as the side moved up to eighth just a point shy of Southampton in seventh and two adrift of Manchester United in sixth.