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Dublin: 10 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019

Man City's title challenge looks all but over after Stoke setback

Ireland international Jon Walters made his long-awaited return to action tonight.

Image: Richard Sellers

PEP GUARDIOLA SAW his team squander the opportunity to gain ground on Premier League leaders Chelsea in a disappointing 0-0 draw with Stoke City at the Etihad on Wednesday.

It was a strangely subdued performance by City, the result perhaps of Guardiola having opted to rest David Silva and Raheem Sterling from his all-star cast of attacking talent.

But given the fact that City had the chance to close the gap to Chelsea to eight points and move above Tottenham into second place, Guardiola’s players were well below their best.

In fact, the best chances of the first period fell to Stoke, led by former City manager Mark Hughes, who were looking to improve on a record of defeats in five of their last six away games.

They could have been well on the way to that target after just five minutes when Eirk Pieters crossed from the left wing and Gael Clichy slipped as he attempted to mark Mame Biram Diouf on the six-yard line.

Fortunately for the City defender and the home supporters, Clichy still managed to provide an obstacle and Diouf’s shot lacked the power to beat Willy Caballero in goal.

Another good attack saw Saido Berahino, starting his first game for Stoke since his controversial transfer from West Brom, play in Ramadan Sobhi, who might have won a penalty had he gone down under a challenge from Nicolas Otamendi, but played on and had his cross cut out by the goalkeeper’s outstretched leg.

Soon after Phil Bardsley’s free-kick into the City area picked out the unmarked Bruno Martins Indi although the big Stoke defender was unable to control the ball.

As the half wore on City began to exert more control but without providing visiting keeper Lee Grant with too many moments of concern.

Aleksandar Kolarov came closest to scoring for City in that period with a superbly judged free-kick which rose and dipped over the Stoke wall and required Grant to punch away to safety.

But all too often City seemed to over-complicate their approach play and, with Silva watching from the bench and the rested Sterling not even in the squad, lacked their usual cutting edge.

Jesus Navas had a rare chance to provide quality service but his near-post cross was well handled by Grant and, in first-half injury time, Otamendi’s long ball looked about to be gathered by Kevin De Bruyne with just the keeper to beat but the ball ran beyond his reach.

Guardiola needed just 13 minutes of the second half to have seen enough and brought on Silva to replace the ineffective Navas.

Indeed, the situation might have been even worse but for a solid piece of defending from Otamendi who blocked an attempt from Berahino soon after the restart.

City’s frustration was growing, with Leroy Sane cautioned for simulation as he went to ground on the edge of the Stoke area although the German almost made amends on 54 minutes when he led a counter and set up Sergio Aguero for a shot which hit Pieters and flew over.

After Silva’s introduction City seemed to have more attacking threat with the Spaniard starting a move which ended with De Bruyne crossing to the penalty spot from where Sane’s mis-hit shot failed to test Grant.

City continued to improve with Yaya Toure shooting over, Sane almost turning in Aguero’s touch at the far post and Silva playing a superb one-two with Fernandinho and sending a low shot narrowly wide of the post.

Meanwhile, Ireland international Jon Walters made his long-awaited return to action after being out injured since the beginning of January, completing 90 minutes as his side earned an impressive away point.

Additional reporting by Paul Fennessy

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