Fresh from ending a 37-year win famine at the Emirates, Manchester City go to one of their unhappiest of hunting grounds seeking progress in the FA Cup.
Acknowledged as having the most effective 12th man in English top flight football, Stoke City will be banking on the vociferous Britannia Stadium crowd to help ease their passage into the 5th round of the Cup.
It’s 14 years almost to the day since the Sky Blues emerged with a victory in Stoke – recorded on 29th January 1999, with a less than glamorous 1-0 win in Division Two.
Roberto Mancini’s champions don’t buckle easily, even in the most tempestuous of surroundings, but half-a-dozen winless visits to the Potteries is not a track record to inspire confidence.
Stoke have played a prominent part in Mancini’s three years in English football. City beat them 2-0 on Boxing Day, 2009 as the Italian presided over his first Premier League fixture.
Two months later and he suffered a reversal of fortunes as Tony Pulis’ men shot the Sky Blues down with a 3-1 FA Cup 5th Round replay. Since Stoke returned to the Premier League, City have never made a return trip up the M6 with all three points, losing 1-0 and then drawing 1-1 on four consecutive occasions.
Of course, it was a vanquished Stoke side that facilitated Mancini’s first silverware in England when City ended a 35-year trophy drought with that sumptuous 1-0 FA Cup Final win in May 2011.
The fact that it’s always a battle at the Britannia is in stark contrast to a Stoke side on their travels, where they roll up and roll over at the Etihad time and time again, losing 3-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-0 and 3-0 in the PL since 2008.
Up until the turn of the year Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth and Co could boast the meanest defence in the PL with just two losses prior to a 3-0 footballing lesson from City on New Year’s Day.
In recent games they’ve been shipping goals at an alarming rate – three on three occasions against Southampton, City and Swansea, along with four to a rampant Chelsea at The Brit.
Mancini must decide on his most formidable strike force and select the combination most capable of halting the familiar ‘Delilah’ war cry from the home support.
Will Dzeko get the nod for his ability to challenge Stoke aerial prowess at the back or, will he go for the ground attack of Aguero and or Tevez?
In contrast with their impressive rearguard action, Stoke’s forwards have been living off scraps with none of the quartet of Crouch, Walters, Jerome and Owen setting the league alight.
Ex- England man, Owen was thrilled to open his account in last week’s 3-1 defeat to Swansea and, despite his injuries and advancing years, Kompany and Co will do well to keep a close eye on Mr Charisma (as in missed a charisma) Owen.
Despite the ‘gummy’ nature of their toothless attack Pulis’ men always manage to pose a threat and be a right royal pain in the ass.
Their propensity for bombarding City’s defence with raking diagonal balls – especially down City’s left flank – has proved to be a problem in the past.
Gael Clichy has been outstanding recently but will Mancini consider putting Lescott in the left back slot to thwart Stoke’s height and power?
City’s back four has been picking itself in recent weeks – but is a horses for courses policy about to emerge?
On paper, the visitors should have too much class, skill and firepower for their hosts and should take one step closer to Wembley. If they are to emerge with the spoils they’ll have to match Stoke’s work rate and outplay them with a short, sharp passing game.
Samir Nasri looks a non starter due to a virus, but illness notwithstanding, many City fans would prefer the muscularity and intensity of James Milner to stand up to some ‘spirited’ tackling.
With the 12th man lined up ready for kick off in the shape of 28,000 ‘Stokies’ City can only hope that Howard the Red Webb isn’t going to make it unlucky 13 for them. Allegedly England’s top referee, Webb is much maligned for a perceived bias towards Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
It is most likely a harsh and unfair assessment of the official, but the doubts and fears always linger when he takes charge of a City encounter.
Mancini will be fielding his strongest side for a trophy well worth winning, especially if the man adored by City’s faithful following is to top last season’s exploits with a League and Cup double come May.
If the Blues can continue their rich vein of form and make it five wins and no goals conceded in 2013, they’ll be one step closer to glory and another bogey side banished.
It can be done. It will be done. Forza Mancini.