Pep Guardiola may be ushering in a brave new world at Manchester City but some things never change – Sergio Aguero scoring goals and refereeing controversy.
Aguero took his tally for the season to five in three games to set up an ultimately convincing win sealed late on by two goals from substitute Nolito which extended Guardiola’s winning start to three games.
But it was hard to keep Mike Dean out of the spotlight as the referee awarded two penalties and ignored arguably the most pressing appeal as Stoke ended up on the wrong side of the equation.
Dean, seemingly on a one-man crusade to clear up penalty area argy-bargy, gave each side a slot-kick as a result of contact following corners and at one point Stoke’s former City manager Mark Hughes looked as though he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
But in the end, Hughes could have no complaints as City picked his side off at the death to start as they hope they will mean to go on – their record of just four wins in their previous 16 away league games do nothing for their chances of regaining the Premier League title in Manuel Pellegrini’s final season in charge.
City’s record at Stoke had threatened to make this a testing afternoon for Guardiola’s new regime with his two immediate predecessors – Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini – both having lost here as part of a run which had seen City win just one of their eight visits in the Premier League.
Having made light of their previous away trip, a mid-week 5-0 win at Steaua Bucharest which has all but secured a place in the group stages of the Champions League ahead of Wednesday night’s second leg, City made just one change to their starting line-up with Guardiola giving a first start of the season to Jesus Navas in place of summer signing Nolito.
Despite a frustrating lack of end product, Navas rarely missed a big game under Pellegrini and slotted in on the right-hand side of a midfield which, as is Guardiola’s way, was a fluid area often populated by defenders as a result of the “obsession” with build-up play the manager again highlighted in his pre-match media briefing.
That’s not to say City weren’t averse to the odd long ball and quick release to try and free Aguero and Raheem Sterling and it was Sterling, who has started the season brightly, who posed the first threat with a curling shot just over the bar.
Stoke, however, were not prepared just to stand and admire and took the fight to City with some decent football of their own. Marko Arnautovic was invariably the outlet and twice he created openings for Giannelli Imbula who should have done more with them.
Xherdan Shaqiri, who played under Guardiola at Bayern Munich, was absent for Stoke with a calf problem, which allowed Joe Allen to make his full debut after signing from Liverpool this summer and Allen then combined well with Bojan Krkic to create a moment of danger which needed a timely intervention from Nicolas Otamendi to nullify.
But with 26 minutes gone the game turned decisively City’s way when they were awarded a fourth penalty of the season. As frustrated as Stoke manager Mark Hughes was by the decision, Ryan Shawcross, a serial offender, did have hold of Otamendi’s arm from a corner and Mike Dean applied the letter of the law.
Aguero, having missed two spot-kicks in the European tie, showed no uncertainty in ramming the ball beyond 40-year-old Shay Given and nine minutes later the striker, having seen a shot saved by Given in between time, helped himself to a fifth goal of the season, glancing home a header from Kevin De Bruyne’s free-kick to make it 2-0.
Stoke’s mood was not improved when Phil Bardsley’s fierce volley was well saved by Willy Caballero – again preferred to Joe Hart – and when Allen was barged to the ground by Aleksandar Kolarov after the ball had been re-cycled no penalty was given.
Dean wasn’t to remain out of the spotlight for long, however, and sure enough, the official levelled things up three minutes into the second half by awarding Stoke a penalty, this time penalising Sterling who, bizarrely, was nearest to Shawcross and put his hands in his chest when trying to block off the defender’s run.
Bojan, a bit-part Barcelona player under Guardiola, beat Caballero and suddenly it was game-on again. Caballero had one or two uncertain moments with his kicking, much to the amusement of Stoke’s fans, but Stoke could not turn pressure into chances.
And in the final few minutes City ruthlessly killed off any fading hopes of a fightback as Nolito helped himself to his first goals in the Premier League, making the most of acres of space to slot home from assists by substitute Kelechi Iheanacho and the impressive Sterling.