Just when everything seemed to be going swimmingly for Manchester City, their past provided an unexpected obstacle. Mark Hughes, the first manager of the Sheikh Mansour era, frustrated Pep Guardiola, the latest and, in terms of exploits elsewhere, greatest. Stoke City held Manchester City, and a run of four consecutive Premier League wins ended with a stalemate.
The chance to close the gap from leaders Chelsea to eight points was spurned. City remain behind Tottenham, albeit on goal difference. Chances, however, were few and far between. There had been an abundance of excitement at the Etihad as Monaco were beaten 5-3 and Huddersfield 5-1. This was the antidote to such evenings, a game when comparatively little happened.
Guardiola had to bring on David Silva in the search for a goal. His fellow Spaniard almost obliged, curling a shot inches past the post and delivering the corner that Nicolas Otamendi headed just over the bar. But with Sergio Aguero subdued and Jesus Navas predictably poor, only Leroy Sane of the attackers who started offered much. Kevin de Bruyne created a couple second-half chances, and Kelechi Iheanacho volleyed wide in added time, but Stoke proved obdurate.
Hughes’ side had conceded four goals in each previous meeting with any of the current top four. This marked a much better defensive effort. Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi were solidity personified. They had plenty of eager accomplices defending from the front and took their tally to 36 points. Although few ever thought they would go down, they are almost safe.
If the scoreline was one surprise, the teamsheet offered another. Aguero wore the armband. Had Gabriel Jesus’ metatarsal not given way at Bournemouth, Aguero might still be out of the side. Instead, he captained City for the first time under Guardiola. It marked a return to favour as well as form. His previous three games had produced five goals.
It seemed a fine omen. When he goes on goal-scoring runs, he can sustain them for long, prolific patches. Yet this was a mini-drought to follow the flood of recent weeks. The night was not as memorable as he would have hoped.
Aguero has led the line many a time. Now he was the designated leader in another; at least three of those he skippered — Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and Kolarov — have worn the armband ahead of him.
Perhaps his elevation from the ranks was a reward for responding to Guardiola’s demands. Certainly he is pressing with more vigour these days. Yet much as he did his defensive duties, his initial problem was that he had fewer of the sort of openings he likes.
A fine solo run was ended by Phil Bardsley, who was cautioned for a trip. That Shawcross was nearby was a sign that Stoke looked to crowd him out. They defended in numbers. A knee injury had rendered Martins Indi a doubt, and Aguero might have hoped the defiant Dutchman had been ruled out. The left-back Erik Pieters thwarted the Argentinian too, heading his curling shot over the bar, while Aguero’s late shot nestled in the side netting.
Guardiola had prioritised, putting Silva on the bench and giving Raheem Sterling a night off. This was the first of four games in 11 days and, in theory, the easiest. It also meant Aguero did not have his preferred supply line, but nor was he at his best.
Ask a striker the sort of game in which he would want to make his full debut, and chances are he would select a home match against a weak side, offering ample opportunity to get off the mark. Saido Berahino got the opposite, plunged into the starting XI away at one of the strongest sides in the country.
It seemed a thankless task for anyone, let alone a forward who had gone 376 days without a goal. Even as Berahino’s wait went on, at least, by playing he got nearer to ending that drought. Already, however, it feels as though Stoke will not see him at his best until next season.
Guardiola had noted how expensive English talent is. Berahino is the second-costliest buy in Stoke’s history, a £15 million recruit who has not scored a goal for more than a year. But for the acrimonious end to his West Bromwich Albion career, certain off-field issues and the feeling he wasted 18 months, his price tag might have been rather bigger. Stoke bought a player they did not feel was ready to start straight away. Four substitute appearances later, he graduated to the first team.
He had not begun a game since early September. In the meantime, he has served a ban for recreational drug use and changed club. He has made news — but not an impression on the pitch.
Hughes has been impressed with his efforts in training, and though Berahino did not look at his slimmest, he was promoted. He seems part of the succession. He might prove to be the long-term replacement to Peter Crouch, but he is a very different type of forward: less a target man and more a predator with pace. In the short term, he was playing off another physical forward, with Jonathan Walters his sidekick in attack. They combined when the veteran won a flick-on for the newcomer to have a shot that Gael Clichy blocked.
The brightest attacker, however, was the precocious Egyptian winger Ramadan Sobhi. Although some select a more defensive side away at the Etihad, Hughes picked a more attacking lineup, with Joe Allen, often the No. 10 this season, beginning in a deeper midfield role. Yet they were well drilled and had a work ethic. Berahino played his part.