As a summer of outstanding UK sporting success draws to a close Manchester City will be hoping that it won’t be a case of Rule Britannia when they travel to face Tony Pulis’ ‘pugilists’ from the Potteries.
The exciting escapades of Andy Murray, Bradley Wiggins and Team GB will be the last thing in the minds of Roberto Mancini’s men as they take on the hostile surroundings of the Britannia Stadium, and opponents renowned for their ‘fighting characteristics’.
One can but admire the tenacity of the home support and, with just four junctions of the M6 separating the two cities, it will be an especially intense affair.
The fact the Sky Blues quenched their 35-year thirst for silverware with an FA Cup Final win over Stoke in 2011 hardly dampens the fire that burns within the Britannia – a venue which has seen City emerge with just three points from a possible 12, on four PL visits.
The Premier League champions go into their second away game on the back of a satisfactory, if unspectacular start to the season.
Stoke away is never a game for the faint hearted and it remains to be seen if Sergio Aguero, poised to return from injury, will be risked.
A lack of match fitness, plus a need to safeguard him before the mouthwatering Champions League match with Real Madrid, means Aguero should, at best, be on the bench.
Just how Mancini balances his twin track approach to the PL and CL will be interesting to see. Gareth Barry and Micah Richards aside, he has his entire squad at his disposal including the glut of transfer deadline signings of Maicon, Nastasic, Garcia & Sinclair.
There’ll be more rotating than a disco dance floor globe with team selection, but the Italian boss will not be prepared to comprise the defence of the PL crown for Euro glory.
Scoring goals has not been a problem with 11 in four games, including the Community Shield. No, it’s at the back where, in a bid to play an even more expansive game, the deployment of a 3-5-2 formation has left City exposed with seven conceded.
Sod’s Law dictates that the forgotten man of English football, one Michael Owen, could make his Stoke debut against City. So often City’s nemesis with a host of previous employers – never more so than in the 97th minute of Fergie time when City lost 4-3 to United – Owen’s appearance could spice up a fixture that is often hotter than a banquet in Bangalore.
Conversely, if Stoke are genuinely attempting to adapt their traditional combative play, it could benefit the men in blue. City have the skill speed and guile to reflect their superiority and Javi Garcia could be key in supporting the thrusts and probings of Silva, Nasri and Yaya Toure.
Be it 3-5-2, 4-4-2 or even 4-3-3 City’s defence needs to up their game. Kompany and Lescott – the bedrock of the PL’s meanest ‘D’ last season – haven’t been at their supreme best as of yet. Stoke would be a great place to start.
England reject, Peter Crouch can be as effective as he is ungainly – last season’s wonder goal against City is testimony enough – and new signings Charlie Adam and Maurice Edu will also want to impress.
Above all City need to keep Stoke’s 12thman – the capacity crowd – quiet so the Blues can ‘wave’ goodbye to the Britannia and head up the M6 with three points for the first time in five PL visits.