When fans’ favourite Pablo Zabaleta pounced at the far post for an 85th-minute winner, the Argentina defender didn’t merely, and deservedly, send City into the last 16, he kept alive Mancini’s hopes of satisfying the club’s paymasters.
The Etihad manager is expected to deliver a trophy this season, not only to justify a huge investment but as evidence that progress is being made on the pitch as well as off it.
The Champions League was first choice, but being grouped with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax left that dream stillborn. And Manchester United, reinforced by the goal power of Robin van Persie, have a head start on Mancini’s defending champions.
Which leaves the FA Cup, the trophy they won in 2011 by beating Stoke at Wembley, as the prize that Mancini might best be able to deliver to the club’s demanding owners and, if Jose Mourinho’s future is still to be decided, hope that it is considered sufficient.
David Platt, Mancini’s No 2, cautioned that, “we can’t start saying we are going all the way, it’s only the fifth round”, but added: “The target of this club is to win trophies, that’s what we are set up to do. It’s important, because when we set off every season we set off to win things.”
There was no doubting which team wanted to win this tie more. As midfielder Gareth Barry remarked, there were ready-made excuses had City lost: “The grass is long, it’s a freezing cold day, away at Stoke, you lose your captain ... but the lads rolled their sleeves up and deserve credit.”
City lost Vincent Kompany before half time with a calf injury that will certainly keep him out of tomorrow’s home game with QPR and, depending on a scan, maybe longer, an absence they can ill afford if they are to keep up with the neighbours.
Stoke, meanwhile, were rather fortunate not to lose Glenn Whelan. The Stoke and Ireland midfielder launched a reckless two-footed tackle on Javi Garcia that merited nothing short of a red card from Howard Webb, who despite his proximity to the incident failed to issue even a yellow. Television replays confirmed that both feet left the ground.
The Spaniard, who continued after treatment, later posted TV footage of the incident on Twitter, although it was later removed. Since Webb clearly didn’t see the tackle, the player can expect to be charged by the FA once they have studied Webb’s report today.
In a way, City might have benefited from Webb’s Specsavers moment. Whelan’s dismissal at the start of the second half would surely have roused Stoke from their torpor to launch the fire and brimstone assault that was lacking in this low-key lunchtime match. As it was, the visitors controlled long stretches of the game, with David Silva in particularly good form and Carlos Tevez at his most determined.
Silva hit the inside of a post with a peach of a first-half shot but Edin Dzeko had a frustrating day, with blocked shots the only reward for his hard work until he got the faintest of touches to substitute Sergio Aguero’s late cross to help the ball on its way to where Zabaleta met it unerringly with the outside of his right boot.
Stoke carried no such threat. No wonder the 4,500 visiting fans crowed “Where’s your famous atmosphere?” At a ground where, more than most, crowd and team feed off each other’s intensity, there was precious little of that around. Perhaps, this season at any rate, it means more to City.
STOKE: Sorensen (7); Shotton (6), Shawcross (6), Huth (6), Wilkinson (5) (Whitehead 73, 5); Kightly (5) (Jerome 67, 5), Whelan (6), Nzonzi (6), Etherington (5); Walters (6), Jones (5) (Crouch 73, 6).
MAN CITY: Pantilimon (7); Zabaleta (8), Kompany (5) (Clichy 40, 6), Lescott (7), Kolarov (6) (Aguero 62, 6); Milner (6), Barry (7); Javi Garcia (6), Silva (8), Tevez (7) (Rodwell 87); Dzeko (6).
Referee: Howard Webb.