Man City 3 Stoke 0
Sergio Aguero turned in another scintillating performance tonight with two goals against Stoke to send Manchester City top of the table on Christmas Day for the first time since 1929.
With one-time hero Carlos Tevez due to be at the centre of talks between City officials and their AC Milan counterparts tomorrow, the man who stepped into his shoes as the most popular South American at the club took centre stage.
Signed for a club record £38m from Atletico Madrid in the summer, unlike Tevez, who remains back in Argentina and has been nothing but trouble for the past 12 months, Aguero has not been a moment’s bother.
At least, he has not been a problem to City. Opposition defences may choose to disagree.
Beaten by tonight’s opponents in last season’s FA Cup final, Stoke were the latest to feel the force of Aguero’s power, the striker bagging a goal either side of the interval to take his seasonal tally to 15.
Adam Johnson enjoyed himself too, completing his first full 90 minutes in the Premier League since the middle of October and marking the occasion with a powerful first-half strike.
Although Kolo Toure suggested earlier in the week that City had a secret plan for facing Stoke, it was the visitors who had the weapon.
It was largely defensive though, with Pulis utilising four burly defenders, including Jonathan Woodgate at full-back, with another solid bank of four in front of them.
For a time it worked as City struggled to fashion a clear-cut opening.
Johnson did hit a thunderous effort against the bar but only thanks to a pretty hefty deflection off Marc Wilson.
It was a limited plan though, belying the fine run of form Stoke have suddenly found themselves in after a period in the doldrums.
And they were made to pay just before the half hour after Samir Nasri and David Silva worked a short corner routine that allowed the Spain star to race forward unopposed after his team-mate’s dummy run had fooled two defenders.
Silva exploited the opportunity by slipping a pass through to Yaya Toure, who in turn squared into the six-yard area.
Thomas Sorensen was equal to Vincent Kompany’s close-range effort but the Dane could only push the ball into the path of Aguero, who bundled home from barely a yard.
On the touchline, Tony Pulis was livid, believing the officials had missed an offside somewhere in the melee.
There did not seem to be a direct involvement of play at any stage though, and Pulis’ ire was probably more to do with the knowledge that, once behind, Stoke were going to find it very difficult to fashion an equaliser.
Difficult became virtually impossible 10 minutes before the break when slack control from Jon Waters, who failed to kill Dean Whitehead’s pass out of defence, allowing it to run onto Johnson.
The England winger did not require a second invitation, smashing a brutal effort through a packed penalty area, Sorensen partially unsighted as it flashed into the corner.
Johnson came close to bagging another just before the break when Sorensen unconvincingly shovelled his curling free-kick round the post.
The former Middlesbrough man was having a productive evening, although he was matched in that by Aguero, who after forcing Sorensen into another save, bagged his second.
It was a goal clinical in its efficiency as Gareth Barry slipped a pass out to Nasri, whose low cross from the right split the Stoke defenders and allowed Aguero to finish at the far post.
Aguero was 90 seconds too late to claim the Premier League’s 20,000th goal but he nearly completed his hat-trick shortly afterwards, when he was sent through by Toure, but only succeeded in flicking his shot wide of the far post.
Blues manager Roberto Mancini took the opportunity to rotate his players, including replacing Silva with Mario Balotelli.
Although the game was winding down, Balotelli is not one for staying out of the way for long and was not happy when referee Mike Dean turned down his penalty appeal when Robert Huth used an arm to block a shot.
It was all pantomime stuff though, unlike City’s title challenge, which is very real indeed.