City beat living daylights out of Stoke
James Bond has been in tighter scrapes than this. Actor Timothy Dalton, supporting Manchester City from the Etihad Stadium stands, knows it. Roberto Mancini, a huge Bond fan, knows it too. Still, the Italian's mission is a tough one. With neighbours Manchester United winning so convincingly at Wigan, the gap to the Premier League summit remains 007 points.
A comfortable 3-0 victory over Stoke made for a fine start to 2013 following the crazy 4-3 win at Norwich that ended 2012. Those two results have lifted the mood on the blue side of Manchester after defeats at the hands of United and Sunderland punched a huge hole in City's Premier League title defence.
It is not going to get easier for Mancini from here, though. A squad already shorn of a number of key players because of injury and suspension has lost two more ahead of their next Premier League test, at Arsenal on January 13. Midfielder Yaya Toure is leaving for African Nations Cup duty with Ivory Coast, while striker Sergio Aguero has a hamstring injury.
"It's a blow," David Platt, Mancini's assistant, said when asked about the striker's setback. Aguero was City's standout player against Stoke, hassling Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth throughout. He might have scored four times in the first half, two of those chances in the opening ten minutes. Having had an early shot blocked by goalkeeper Asmir Begovic at the near post, he chested down a long Gareth Barry pass and fired just over in one movement, then spun away from Shawcross to hit a stinging shot that was well saved. Aguero did beat Begovic with a header from a Barry cross later in the half but hit the post.
It was something of a surprise that Aguero had no part in City's opening goal, scored by the redoubtable Pablo Zabaleta two minutes before half-time after excellent build-up play involving David Silva and James Milner. He would, however, have his say in City's two second-half goals.
He created the second for Edin Dzeko, collecting Toure's pass and wriggling free to poke in a low shot that Begovic pushed out for the Bosnian to tap in. When Silva was fouled by Steven N'Zonzi and referee Michael Oliver awarded a penalty, even though the contact was just outside the area, Aguero drove the ball in via the goalkeeper's hands.
Stoke's ten-match unbeaten run had disappeared without too much of a fight, despite a late effort from former City youth-team graduate Glenn Whelan, which Joe Hart tipped on to the post.
"No complaints. They were the better team," Stoke manager Tony Pulis said afterwards. "Someone's just asked me what the difference between the sides was. I've said about £220 million. For us to come here, we have to bring our A game and City have to be off it, and that wasn't the case today."
Considering Stoke's reputation for giving the Premier League's leading lights a rough ride, they seemed curiously short of ambition. Perhaps they were weary after the effort they had put into coming back from two goals down with ten men to draw 3-3 with Southampton on Saturday. But what little attacking spark they showed came when the game had already run away from them.
Platt, though, dismissed any suggestion that Pulis and his side had come for a 0-0 draw. "I don't think it was damage limitation from the start," he said. "I think they know they can make it very difficult for you to score goals. We've had a lot of teams who have come here, sat back and defended. I think you've got to give us a bit of credit as well."
It was certainly the response Mancini wanted from the players he had criticised for a lack of cutting edge after they were beaten 1-0 at Sunderland on Boxing Day. Seven goals in two matches since then suggests that the attacking confidence is returning. Stoke, who had arrived at the Etihad Stadium boasting the Premier League's meanest defence, ultimately could not cope.
"I don't know if it was because it was the fourth game in the holiday period," Pulis said, "but I'm not going to criticise the players. They still worked their socks off."
For Pulis, this was a blip in a solid season. For Mancini, it was a sign that the title race is not yet lost. He may be backed into a corner, with the odds stacked against him, but that never bothered Bond. The sky hasn't fallen in just yet.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Sergio Aguero. The forward gave Stoke's central defensive pair of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth nightmares. Having created a goal for Edin Dzeko, he deserved one of his own, even if the penalty from which it came was fortunate. His absence will be a significant setback for Mancini.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: It is as much as Mancini's men can do right now to keep scoring the goals, collecting the points and hoping that Manchester United slip up at some stage. They did everything asked of them here, winning with something to spare. It is the sort of performance they must produce consistently over the next four and a half months if they are to have any hope of retaining the Premier League title.
STOKE VERDICT: Tony Pulis's record at the Etihad Stadium is poor, and his side never looked like improving it. They only started to show attacking ambition after going 2-0 down, enjoying a decent spell that briefly threatened to disturb their opponents' equilibrium. In the end, though, one of the Premier League's most powerful teams were simply overpowered.