STOKE CITY’s unbeaten run in the Premier League came to an abrupt end after they were soundly beaten 3-0 by Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on New Year’s Day.
Goals from Pablo Zabaleta and Edin Dzeko, plus a dubious penalty from Sergio Aguero, meant the Potters suffered their first loss in the top flight for ten games at the hands of the Champions.
After initially holding their own in the first-half, Zabaleta’s goal just before the break put the Citizens’ on the front foot and they never looked back as they ran out comfortable winners.
Replays showed that Steven Nzonzi’s foul on David Silva for the spot-kick occurred outside the box, but no-one could deny Roberto Mancini’s side the points as they began 2013 in clinical fashion while Stoke will hope it’s just a minor blip in what has been an extremely promising first-half of the season.
Cameron Jerome made his first Premier League start after equalising in spectacular fashion against Southampton last Saturday, while Charlie Adam also returned to the eleven, making his first appearance since the sudden death of his father last month.
Captain Ryan Shawcross and full-back Geoff Cameron came back into the team after serving one-match bans, while for City, Joleon Lescott and James Milner deputised for Samir Nasri and Matija Nastastic.
Worries that the Potters were to be punished with a similar start that Norwich City were on the end of at the weekend were exasperated in the first minute - the hosts tested Asmir Begovic when Milner cut in from the right and slipped in Aguero, who fired a low shot that the Bosnian stopper turned around at his near post.
Mancini’s charges looked confident in the opening phase of the match, and on nine minutes Aguero had another chance at goal after a pinpoint ball from Barry, but his technique let him down and the ball sailed over the crossbar.
The champions’ quality in possession meant City saw little of the ball in the opening quarter of an hour, yet their next chance came from a set-piece when Silva nodded over the bar from Milner’s free-kick on 19 minutes.
Gareth Barry was finding plenty of the ball in midfield, and on 22 minutes he threaded in Aguero once more, whose powerful drive was beaten away by a full-stretched Begovic.
In one of the Potters’ few forays forward, they had a penalty shout turned when Barry and Adam collided when both going for a loose ball, although replays showed the Potters would have been fortunate had that particular decision been given in their favour.
The home crowd were beginning to grow frustrated as City’s sturdy rear-guard kept clear chances at a minimum, with Andy Wilkinson personifying their spirit with a magnificent last ditch tackle to deny Aguero.
The diminutive Argentinian then had the game’s best chance, however, on 33 minutes when he met Silva’s delightful cross, only to see his header rebound behind after hitting the base of the post.
Six minutes before half-time, the hosts earned a free-kick in a dangerous position after Shawcross felled Dzeko, but Yaya Toure scuffed the set-piece into the bottom of the wall.
They got the breakthrough on 42 minutes, though. Milner was allowed too much space in the area as he ran to the by-line, and after his square ball was parried by Begovic, Zabaleta was on hand to turn the ball home from six yards.
The timing of the goal was a harsh blow for Tony Pulis’ men, who had stood firm through the first period only for the manager’s half-time team talk to be altered by the events just before the whistle.
Four minutes after the break, Dzeko went very close to doubling the home team’s lead – Toure’s lofted ball found the towering Bosnian in plenty of space through the middle, and his well-struck half-volley whistled just over the bar.
They seemed intent on extending their advantage as they upped the tempo in the early stages of the second-half, and the pressure paid dividends for Mancini’s men when they got their second on 56 minutes.
The influential Aguero jinxed past two defenders before stabbing a shot at goal, which Begovic could only play into the path of his international team-mate Dzeko, who couldn’t miss from a yard.
His t-shirt revealed the phrase ‘Happy New Year’ – a sentiment that the Potters fans would have done well to relate to with the prospect of facing the dominant champions for over half an hour more.
Unperturbed, however, straight away up the other end Jerome earned a free-kick just outside the box from which Adam forced a smart stop from England goalkeeper Joe Hart.
Winger Jonathan Walters then had a half-chance on 62 minutes when Jerome flicked on Glenn Whelan’s corner, but the ball fell the Irishman very quickly and he could manage to steer the ball over.
The Potters saw more of the ball as they tried to force a way back into the game, but it was put beyond them in the 73rd minute when Man City were awarded a penalty after Nzonzi felled the charging Silva.
Aguero stepped up to finally get his goal, striking the ball below Begovic, and the moment will have left an even more bitter taste for City fans as replays showed that the penalty should never have been given.
It became a case of damage limitation for City, but Whelan did give Hart a scare in the 86th minute when a low shot from 25 yards had to be tipped onto the post.
In stoppage time, Milner showed the energy and determination to run half the length of the pitch with the ball, but Dzeko couldn’t meet his cross and the ball drifted wide for a goal kick.
That proved to be the last action of the match as City started the new calendar year with a defeat.