Pablo Zabaleta is a cult hero to the Manchester City faithful and unsung in the wider football consciousness. Yet the way he zoomed along the right then selflessly created the third goal for Kelechi Iheanacho was a moment worthy of marking his 300th appearance for the club.
The Nigerian’s 10th of a breakthrough campaign allowed his team to cruise home, and Iheanacho scored a second towards the end after the substitute Wilfried Bony played him in.
On Tuesday Real Madrid are at this stadium for the Champions League semi-final first leg and this was ideal preparation. The win lifted Manuel Pellegrini’s men up to third place on 64 points with three matches remaining, though Arsenal can leapfrog them if they win at Sunderland on Sunday.
Pellegrini said: “It was very important to have our mind focused on this game and not on Tuesday. I always say a big team must be able to have their minds in both competitions.”
In the buildup Pellegrini said Vincent Kompany had suffered no reaction following Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw at Newcastle. That game was a first start following a knee injury yet when the match-day squad was announced the captain was not in the 18. In explanation, the manager said: “For Vincent it was a risk to play two games in 72 hours. He is OK, he worked this morning.”
Kevin De Bruyne was stood down to the bench to protect him as Iheanacho was given a first league start since a 1-0 win at Sunderland on 2 February.
In the reverse fixture in early December Pellegrini’s side were taught a lesson, Stoke beating them 2-0. The start on Saturday suggested a different story. There were chances for each team but none of the slick passing and domination Mark Hughes’s side enjoyed at the Britannia Stadium.
Jesús Navas was the key man in the opener. The Spaniard had already danced inside towards traffic when possession returned to him. Now, he raced to the byline and hit a low cross which was turned away for a corner. Navas pinged over a ball that found Fernando and his glancing header beat Shay Given at the far post.
This was 35 minutes in and just reward for City. They had a second as the interval neared. What can be missed in Sergio Agüero’s act as a supreme goalscorer is how sweet a footballer he is. So it was that the 27-year-old played a killer pass along the right touchline that would lead to the penalty he converted for a 23rd Premier League strike of another standout campaign.
When the play eventually reached Stoke’s area, Iheanacho was pulled down by Ryan Shawcross and the referee, Robert Madley, pointed to the spot. Up stepped Agüero to give Given no chance to his right.
At the break Hughes might have reminded his players of the maxim about taking chances with particular reference to Shawcross. During the first half the captain was handed a free volley from a corner, but missed to Joe Hart’s right.
Given’s inclusion at 40 made him the first in Stoke colours to feature in the league in his fifth decade since Sir Stanley Matthews. But the goalkeeper was withdrawn at half-time because of a groin injury and Jakob Haugaard took his place. The Dane was in action immediately, tipping away Iheanacho’s long-range attempt.
After David Silva was withdrawn three minutes before the hour – Fabian Delph coming on – Stoke brightened briefly. Marko Arnautovic cut inside from the left and hammered a shot at Hart that the goalkeeper beat out.
Now, though, came the Iheanacho show, with fine support from Zabaleta and Bony. There was a scare near the end as Yaya Touré went down injured and he might have come off. Pellegrini hopes the Ivorian will be fine. “Yaya, maybe the doctor will see him tomorrow, he finished with a muscle injury, we’ll see,” said the Chilean.
For Stoke, it was a second 4-0 defeat in six days, after Monday’s home thumping by Tottenham Hotspur, and a third game in a row in which they have conceded four.
There was further bad news as Hughes said midfielder Ibrahim Afellay suffered a serious injury in training on Friday. “Unfortunately, one moment, he just brought down a ball from a high position, landed on his knee, twisted it and looks he has had a snapped a cruciate. No one was around him, looks like he is going to be out for nine months,” he said.