James Milner heads Manchester City back in right direction after unconvincing show

Champions’ hesitancy hinted this was a victory that might just slip away

Stoke City 1 Manchester City 4

This ended as an emphatic victory, a first triumph in the Premier League since New Year's Day and at this venue for Manchester City, though the scoreline does not tell how the champions wobbled until pulling away when the underrated James Milner scored 10 minutes into the second half.

City knew they must win to ensure no further ground was ceded to Chelsea. And with the leaders defeating Everton, the champions closed the evening having maintained a deficit of seven points to at least let Jose Mourinho’s men know the title race is not yet a formality.

Striking deficit

On the same day of last season, City had notched 21 goals more than the 47 accrued in the Premier League before the start of this match. While they had played one match more then than the current term’s 24, this striking deficit offered a big clue as to why Manuel Pellegrini’s men are struggling.

An embodiment of this was shown early on. David Silva was clear in the area and squared the ball to Sergio Aguero. The striker scuffed the shot and missed a chance to break a drought that had stretched back two months to December 3rd when the last two of his 19 strikes were registered.


Aguero's tentativeness before his goal spread throughout his colleagues. At the back Joe Hart had one of those moments he always seems capable of, spilling a fierce Victor Moses shot from distance nearly straight into his goal. Instead it went for a corner and from this Peter Crouch was allowed a free header by a static City defence, and Stoke appeared to have a good shout for a penalty as Milner's arm connected with the ball.

If Lee Mason, the referee, was unsure, clearer was how the visitors were continuing the poor form of Saturday's draw with Hull. An Aleksandar Kolarov shot diced with a corner flag and Aguero had another unconvincing attempt, while at the other end Crouch had the ball in the City net but it was ruled offside. The visiting support sang "We know what we are, we're the champions of England" and, finally, their team was about to perform like so. Aguero decided to cast off the doubt that was hampering him when he again took possession near Stoke's goal. With a shoulder-drop the striker made space, then drilled a sweet finish beyond Asmir Begovic.

This felt unfair to Stoke, and justice was about to be served. Marko Arnautovic, the classy Austrian playmaker deployed by Hughes on the right, swung in a cross and Crouch again could head unmarked, this time to beat Hart for the equaliser.

On the stroke of half-time Aguero might have had a second with a finish into the open goal, but his hand touched the ball, the strike was disallowed, and the 26-year-old was booked. It summed City up.

Clever pass

Fernandinho offered flashes of quality in the opening 45 minutes and another came at the second half’s start. The Brazilian’s clever pass split Stoke and allowed Kolarov to run it at Begovic, but there was no finish. The problem was Fernandinho followed this with a clumsy ball that handed possession to Stoke in midfield, again illustrating City’s hesitancy. The sense for much of the time was that a match they had to win might just slip away completely.

But Milner, the saviour with the late, late equaliser against Hull, now stepped up, the midfielder's emphatic header from a Samir Nasri delivery his fifth of the season. City's third came when Geoff Cameron fouled Silva in the area and from the penalty Aguero converted. Better came as Nasri belted home a peach of a finish from 20 yards to confirm a desperately needed three points.
Guardian Service
STOKE CITY : Begovic; Cameron, Wollscheid, Muniesa , Bardsley; Arnautovic, Nzonzi (Shenton 90), Whelan (Adam 85), Moses (Sidwell 80); Diouf, Crouch. Subs not used: Butland (Gk), Palacios, Teixeira, Wilkinson. Booked: Arnautovic .
MANCHESTER CITY: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Mangala, Kolarov, Fernandinho, Fernando, Milner, Silva (Lampard 80), Nasri (Navas 86), Aguero (Dzeko 73). Subs not used: Sagna, Caballero, Demichelis, Jovetic. Booked: Aguero 45, Milner 52.
Referee: Lee Mason 7