Saturday, 14 May 2011

City's Blue Heaven

By Shane Thomas

MANCHESTER CITY 1-0 STOKE CITY (Manchester City win the 2011 FA Cup)

Thirty-five years of anguish, disappointment and handwringing were brought to an end at Wembley as Manchester City finally ended their mammoth trophy drought with a 1-0 victory over Stoke. Yaya Toure was the hero as he struck with just 16 minutes remaining as they finally broke down the wall of resistance that Stoke had put up.

City made a strong start as Gareth Barry and the ferocious Nigel De Jong grabbed the midfield while Stoke seemed to play the occasion rather than the match. Goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen was inspired for the underdogs as he was needed to keep both Carlos Tevez & Mario Balotelli at bay. The save from Balotelli in particular was first class.

Stoke should have had a penalty as the otherwise faultless Vincent Kompany handled in the penalty area, but they also should have had a man sent-off when Robert Huth caught Balotelli with an elbow to the throat. In the end, they would have been relieved to reach half time at all square, especially as the underperforming David Silva missed the chance of the half, shinning the ball over with the goal gaping.

A stronger display was to be expected from Stoke in the second half, and it arrived as both Glen Whelan and Jermaine Pennant were to the fore. While their direct play made minimal impact as the City backline held firm, Joleon Lescott failed to deal with a Matthew Etherington pass as Kenwyne Jones bore down on goal. It was a golden chance but Joe Hart made a fine save.

This was Stoke's best period of the game, and when Andy Wilkinson was caught with a high challenge from Toure, they had valid claims for the Ivorian to be sent-off. But referee Martin Atkinson - who seemed to absolve himself from making any major calls in the match - kept his cards in his pocket, and the deadlock was soon broken.

City manager Roberto Mancini made a surprisingly attacking substitution, bringing on Adam Johnson for the ever diminishing Barry. While Johnson wasn't involved in the goal, his on-pitch presence gave the Stoke defence an extra man to worry about. On 74 minutes Balotelli and Silva exchanged passes down Stoke's left-hand side. The Italian's shot was blocked, and fell perfectly for Toure in the penalty area. He lashed the ball past Sorensen, and the contest was over.

While there were still 16 minutes to go, Stoke knew that they were already beaten. And sure enough, City saw the game out without much difficulty. As the final whistle went, the blue half of Wembley erupted in a wave of relief and joy. Pretenders no longer, the sleeping giant finally awoke.

And in defeat, Stoke magnanimously admitted that the better side had won the game. Stoke had tried to smash and grab their way to victory, but they failed to grab their chance when it came along.

As for City, the first tangible success in the Sheikh Mansour era has arrived. The club now has the perfect riposte to all the criticism for their wealth, their style of play and their supposed lack of organic spirit. The project has borne fruit. And what sweet fruit it is. After thirty-five years, Manchester City have their day in the sun. The test now is whether they can keep hold of their new found sunshine.

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