Xherdan Shaqiri carved Manchester City apart in the first 15 minutes, creating two goals for Marko Arnautovic as Stoke City deservedly upset the Premier League leaders early Saturday afternoon.
Stoke’s impressive 2-0 victory over the team that had started the day atop the Barclays League standings was another unexpected result in an increasingly unpredictable season, but it was in no way against the run of play on a windy afternoon. Shaqiri, in fact, seemed perfectly at home against the wind in the opening half when he bedeviled a City defense which could not hide the fact that it is missing key men like Vincent Kompany in the center of the backline.
Credit Mark Hughes’ men with a sound approach to the task. They employed a raking counterattack from defensive positions to create enough chances to have scored five or six goals on the day. Arnautovic wound up with a pair but could – perhaps should – have scored four and Shaqiri squandered an open net opportunity when Arnautovic tried to turn provider in the second half.
City never came to grips with the match, failing to provide any effective service for their front runners and looking out to sea when Stoke turned on the after-burners and attacked them with speed and precision.
The result left the door wide open for Leicester City, Manchester United and Arsenal to climb above Manchester City later in the day to say nothing of bolstering the hopes of many would-be contenders in a season which looks increasingly wide open.
Winning for the third time in four league games and following up their qualification for the League Cup semifinals, Stoke moved ninth in the table pending the results to come later in the weekend. They closed the gap between themselves and City to a mere seven points.
Stoke were on top in just seven minutes after Shaqiri did the approach work to create a beautiful goal for Arnautovic.
The Swiss international collected on the right and immediately had room to run when Fernando lost his footing as he tried to close down the winger. Neither Aleksandar Kolarov nor Nicolas Otamendi could deal with Shaqiri’s explosive run as they were beaten by his pace, allowing room for the raking corner to come across Joe Hart’s goal. Arnautovic timed his run perfectly, slipping between defenders to first-time the ball home.
Eight minutes later the home side repeated the act, this time down the inside right channel rather than far wide. This time Shaqiri turned away from Fernando some 30 yards from goal, cut inside to his left before curling a perfect pass through the defense – and just past Bojan’s run – allowing the scorer to run onto the ball to finish with another precise finish that left Hart helpless.
It could have been a first half hat trick for Stoke’s Austrian striker had Arnautovic been a tiny bit more precise. On 37 minutes but he headed a Glenn Whelan cross just past the near left post with Hart rooted and the City defense again caught reacting statically to a Stoke counter. And he certainly should have scored six minutes later when he beat the offside trap to another wonderful Shaqiri pass, went in alone and smashed a shot past Hart that came back off the post.
Kevin De Bruyne did bring one good save from Jack Butland in the 14th minute and Kolarov came close five minutes before the break, but City was a stuttering, often wide open side, looking nothing like Premier League leaders as they were out-thought and outplayed by Hughes’ side.
There was no City revival when they returned for the second half. Although Manuel Pellegrini’s side had more of the ball, they weren’t worrying Butland very often and the best chances continued to fall to Stoke.
Hart made a fine one-handed save to keep Bojan from scoring in the 53rd minute, then Arnautovic tried to return the favor to Shaqiri in the 69th minute only for Shaqiri to somehow fail to touch into an open net after the pass had stranded the City defense. A minute later Shaqiri sent in Bojan but the advancing Hart and Bojan’s inability to get a final touch kept the scoreline at 2-0.
City finished with ten men when Fernando picked up an apparent hamstring injury in the final 15 minutes after Pellegrini had used his three substitutes.