City pass yet another test
Manchester City's fixture list can resemble a race and an obstacle course at the same time. They are setting a fearsome pace, albeit with their obstreperous neighbours in frantic pursuit, but their task is greater than that. They have to negotiate and overcome a variety of hurdles and prove themselves deserving champions. And, one by one, boxes are being ticked.
Sunday's encounter with Arsenal was an examination of City's ability to react to defeat; this was a test of their capacity to break down opponents intent upon securing a stalemate. "Sometimes it is better to have a good match, open," Roberto Mancini said. But such are the trials favourites face, confronted by a nine-man rearguard.
If there are three ways to combat such crowded negativity, the league leaders rarely go over the top and don't always need to go around the back. With precise, penetrative passes, they can pick holes in a packed penalty area. With Sergio Aguero exhilarating and Adam Johnson enjoying a first league start in over two months, Stoke were brushed aside.
Like Norwich's recent visit, it was another of the attack-versus-defence exercises that matches at the Etihad Stadium seem to become. And, as when the Canaries visited, it was an emphatic win. In itself, that is proof of progress.
Last season, Mancini's men suffered with the burden of expectation. They were uncertain in their search for the breakthrough and unsure what to do with a 1-0 lead. Now they are mastering the art of the regulation home win. There is a greater assurance, a confidence that the goals will come. "We'll score when we want" has become the fans' mantra; adopting and adapting a United chant just as they hope to pinch their rivals' crown.
It has a truth, too. The goals keep coming, the latest trio sufficiently early to ensure a comfortable evening. Stoke almost survived for half an hour before a slick move. David Silva weaved his way into the penalty area to find Yaya Toure. Thomas Sorensen parried his shot but Aguero, the predator supreme, applied the finishing touch. "The first goal was very important," Mancini added.
His influential Ivorian played a part in the second. Toure dispossessed Jonathan Walters and Johnson did the rest, whipping in a shot from 25 yards. Having already clipped the bar, with a shot that deflected off Marc Wilson, it was a reminder the winger ranks among City's most productive players. His season has only included five league starts, but it has brought as many goals.
Aguero's debut campaign, meanwhile, has 15 goals in all competitions. The unmarked Argentine steered in his second from Samir Nasri's low cross after the Frenchman had been found by Gareth Barry with a perceptive pass. He had two attempts to complete a hat-trick, and City plenty of others to make it a rout. The scoreline was 3-0, with another statistic - shots on target - a remarkable 16-0.
It shows that opponents can be rendered timid by the threat of a thrashing. They simply opt to limit their losses. "The same things happen against [Manchester] United because United have been a top team for a long time," Mancini said.
Tony Pulis' analysis of the title race was: "I think there's more pressure on Man City because everyone will be putting them down as favourites." He is, he said, envious of Mancini. "I think he has everything you need to go into battle, some fantastic players technically but also some warriors, so he has a good balance," he added.
Balance has put them on a high they last reached in the Great Depression. Top at Christmas for the first time since 1929, Mancini's seasonal cheer was nevertheless tempered by the knowledge his ultimate objective is to last longer at the summit. "Until now we have dominated this championship but if we want to win [it] we should get 90 points because Manchester United keep winning," he said.
A side that mustered 71 last year required a major advance, but that is what City have made. With 44 now, they are almost halfway there, but with plenty more obstacles in their path.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Sergio Aguero. Electric and elusive, his speed and movement meant that, no matter how many men Stoke had near him, he was invariably a threat. On days like this, he is the finest out-and-out poacher in the country.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: In cruise control, they took their formidable home record over the past year to 27 wins and two draws in all competitions. Barry and Toure passed the ball superbly while Johnson's performance was a sign of their strength in depth. Spare a thought, though, for Pablo Zabaleta: arguably the outstanding player against Arsenal, he was back on the bench.
STOKE CITY VERDICT: Disappointing in the extreme, but they are a different proposition at the Britannia Stadium. After their run of four league wins came to an end, another sequence could begin when Aston Villa visit on Boxing Day. Pulis was without Peter Crouch, Matthew Etherington and Ryan Shawcross but some should be back for the more winnable game.