Redemption for Mark Hughes in Stoke's win over Manchester City
Wedgwood Pottery, based in Stoke on Trent and producing delicate ceramics and vases of a beautifully fragile nature, have never been moved to manufacture small busts of Ryan Shawcross and Charlie Adam. That's possibly because they would soon run out of materials, or perhaps they just don't do football-based irony in the fine pottery business.
The manner in which this momentous smash and grab raid on the Etihad was celebrated, however, suggests it might not be too long before they are busy casting head-and-shoulder portrait plates of Mark Hughes and Mame Biram Diouf -- the new royal couple of Staffordshire and The Potteries.
Hughes, the robustly built ex-City manager -- who was unceremoniously escorted out of Manchester to make room for the delicate, gently leaning Bucchero figure of Roberto Mancini -- still bears a grudge toward the City hierarchy. And few can blame him.
Although he presided over the first major squandering of the initial Thaksin Shinawatra super-budget, beyond having Robinho foisted upon him, Hughes had little time to get to grips with the big money of Sheikh Mansour before his time was up. Before leaving, he did bequeath the club a decent going away present, though: Vincent Kompany. It was thus not always a bed of thorns in the Hughes MCFC garden.
Irony stalks the Manchester City corridors of history like a ghost in a thick cape, however, and Hughes' last game in charge of City was a slapstick 3-3 draw with Sunderland -- a match given extra piquancy by the fact that the poor manager's direct replacement was sitting behind in the stands. That the Welshman should now return to City with a Stoke side whose record at the Etihad is utterly threadbare and take the spoils by throwing a defensive blanket over this match created quite a scene.
Stoke were resolute and rough (as they always are), rode what little luck they needed to ride -- Yaya Toure's slightly theatrical tumble making hapless referee Lee Mason think it was a dive when in fact it was a penalty -- and came away with all three points when Diouf ran from inside his own half to score the only goal of the game. He was later extremely close to a second, as the away side pondered whether it might not be appropriate to take advantage of their slumbering hosts.
The goal, though spectacular for the length of Diouf's run, had City errors written through it like a stick of rock. First Aleksandar Kolarov was easily beaten in midfield, then Fernandinho -- busy having a miserably ineffective afternoon as Fernando's replacement -- flapped and missed his opponent as he ran through acres of space at the edge of City's penalty area, before Joe Hart sat down and wafted a leg over the skimming shot.
The wide-open fields at the City end were a direct contrast to the minute triangles of perfectly mowed green that City's front men were asked to play in throughout the game. Stoke lined up great banks of chugging giants that ran snorting at every space larger than a square foot.
It was a Herculean effort worthy of taking the three points, despite City's lethargic, careless and other-worldly approach to a game that is traditionally there for the taking. Stoke, a team that normally arrives in Manchester bearing gifts of varying sizes, turned up this time wearing a black mask, carrying a sack and wielding a useful-looking hammer.
City have now played four games this season and have split their performances neatly between 'promising while not moving out of second gear' (Newcastle and Liverpool) and 'not remotely fit for purpose' (Arsenal and Stoke). It might be a little while before we discover which Manchester City we can expect to see this season, though the smart money must still be on Manuel Pellegrini getting his sums right and providing Blues fans with another glittering season to remember.
To deliver this, his players will need to be more dynamic in their movement, more rapid in their forward thrusts, less meandering and less keen to move the ball backward. In the 90th minute, with the sands of time draining through sky-blue fingers, we were treated to an attack that threatened momentarily as it burst upon the edge of the Stoke box. With a ball into the box being cried out for, a combination of befuddled blue shirts managed to shepherd the ball back into their own half.
Stoke had had their day and done their job. The team with the porcelain chin had proved harder than granite in the end.