Pep Guardiola's Manchester City failed to reclaim second spot after drawing 0-0 with Stoke
Despite the importance of the match, with Tottenham having leapfrogged them into second place at the weekend and Chelsea further endorsing their title claims with victory over West Ham on Monday night, Guardiola gave the in-form Raheem Sterling the night off.
To compound matters, David Silva was left on the bench for nearly an hour.
The draw left City level on points with Spurs but having squandered another two points.
It seemed an avoidable mistake given City will play in the FA Cup at Middlesbrough at the weekend – a match which would be the perfect time to rest players with an international break around the corner.
Instead, the home boss shuffled his pack to give Sterling a night off and left Silva and John Stones on the bench, only to be reached for in case of emergency.
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The Manchester City boss gave the captain’s armband to Sergio Aguero which was a nice gesture of support but not one that will warm him quite as much as the offer of a new contract.
Yet the Spaniard’s selection, the fact that they had put four past the Potters in three of their last four meetings, and Stoke’s miserable recent record of five losses from six on the road, lent weight to the feeling the home side were expecting a fairly comfortable ride.
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Stoke boss Mark Hughes has never taken kindly to being taken lightly though, saying in the build up to the game that he hoped his side might at least prove “an irritant”.
And it was Stoke who carved out the better early chances.
So much so that they will have been kicking themselves at half-time for not taking at least one of them.
Sergio Aguero failed to take his chances at the Etihad
The first came with six minutes gone, Eric Pieters picking out Mame Biram Diouf with a cross from the left only for the midfielder to fail to connect cleanly.
But a second chance soon followed, leaving Guardiola counting his luck after Ramadan Sobhi wriggled into the area and chose to ride Nicolas Otamendi’s outstretched leg rather than look for the penalty.
Two minutes after that Joe Allen’s free-kick from the right flank beat a ponderous back line but landed on the right foot of an unmarked Bruno Martins Indi eight yards out and the startled defender fluffed his shot.
At the other end, striker Aguero found his opportunities limited as he tried to force his way through a backline so tightly deployed it looked like a giant red-and-white barcode.
The closest the home side came before the break was a left-footed free-kick from Aleksandar Kolarov on the angle 25 yards out that curled nicely around the wall but was pushed way by Lee Grant’s hand as it arrowed in on goal.
David Silva squandered his chance after puttung his effort wide of the mark at the Etihad
Jesus Navas and Leroy Sane enjoyed some joy on the flanks but failed to find the target or Aguero in the middle.
City got closer as the match wore on. After 70 minutes, Aguero got a toe to a whipped cross from the right from Kevin De Bruyne but could only deflect it past the far post.
An even better chance fell to substitute Silva after a neat interchange with Fernandinho gave him a sight of goal, but the Spaniard’s left-footer curled away from the far post.
A late miss by sub Kelechi Iheanacho summed it up.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-1-4-1): Caballero; Sagna, Kolarov, Otamendi, Clichy; Fernandinho; Navas (Silva 57), De Bruyne, Toure (Iheanacho 76), Sane; Aguero. Booked: Sane. NEXT UP: Middlesbrough (a) Sat, FA Cup.
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Grant; Bardsley, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Pieters; Diouf (Afellay 69), Allen (Imbula 85), Cameron, Sobhi; Walters, Berahino (Whelan 79). Booked: Bardsley, Sobhi, Walters. NEXT UP: Chelsea (h), Sat March 18 PL.
Referee: N Swarbrick (Lancashire)