Stuart James at the Bet365 Stadium
It promises to be an enjoyable five-day break in the sun for Manchester City’s players, who boarded their flight to Abu Dhabi last night enjoying the view from the top of the Premier League, 16 points clear of Manchester United once again, and safe in the knowledge they can wrap up the title against their neighbours on 7 April if they win at Everton the weekend before.
Manchester City must feel like they are within touching distance of that crown after David Silva delivered another midfield masterclass on an evening when Pep Guardiola’s side cantered to their 26th league win of the season to leave Stoke mired in relegation trouble. Returning to the team after being allowed compassionate leave to spend time with his wife in Spain, where the couple’s prematurely born son continues to receive medical attention, Silva scored two splendid goals and was a joy to watch throughout.
Raheem Sterling set up the first and Gabriel Jesus, who started up front in place of the injured Sergio Agüero, created the second as a cold night in Stoke presented few problems for a City side who will be guaranteed a warm welcome in more ways than one when they touch down in the Middle East.
With eight matches remaining, City have already accumulated more points than they did in the whole of last season and this was another of those occasions when the opposition were only allowed fleeting glimpses of the ball. The visitors were dominant from the outset and although Paul Lambert took consolation from the fact Stoke “never capitulated” in the way they in October, when City put seven past them at the Etihad, the truth is the margin of victory could easily have been much wider.
City were more forgiving than normal in front of goal, with Sterling guilty of squandering a couple of excellent second-half chances against a Stoke side who showed plenty of endeavour but offered little in the way of an attacking threat in a game that always felt like an exercise in damage limitation.
“We are very close now,” said Guardiola, looking a picture of relaxation as he reflected on City’s commanding position. “We have 81 points, which is a lot. I understand it is important to our fans to win it against United but the target is the next game at Everton. After that, if we play like today, sooner or later we will be champions.”
Guardiola was full of praise for Silva, who made it sound as though stepping on to the pitch is a form of escape for him at the moment when it comes to his personal life. “When I play football I forget about everything else,” he said. “My private life is very hard for me but my son is fighting and getting better.”
Silva’s opening goal, with only 10 minutes gone, was beautifully constructed and showed Guardiola’s team at their elegant best. Sterling played a pass infield to Fernandinho that the winger got back via a terrific reverse ball from Jesus. With space to run into on the right flank, Sterling scampered forward and delivered a cross that was so perfectly weighted that Silva, arriving into the penalty area between Kurt Zouma and Moritz Bauer, did not have to break his stride. Expertly opening up his body and letting the ball run across him, the midfielder coolly dispatched a left-foot shot beyond Jack Butland.
Stoke were pinned in for long periods, yet they could easily have equalised in the 21st minute when Badou Ndiaye, running on to Xherdan Shaqiri’s cut-back, swept a low shot that took a slight deflection off Fernandinho to take the ball the wrong side of the post.
Although there was another moment of consternation for City when Ederson tipped Kyle Walker’s clearance over the bar, it always felt like a matter of time before Stoke conceded again.
That moment arrived five minutes after the restart and once again it was a terrific passage of play that carved Stoke open. Exchanging passes with Jesus on the edge of the penalty area, Silva showed wonderful composure to hook a bouncing ball past Butland, who had dashed from his line.
As Guardiola and his players head off into the sunshine, Stoke have another big home game to prepare for, with Everton the visitors on Saturday.
Stoke have won only one of their past 11 league games, with this defeat leaving them second from bottom and badly in need of three points against Everton to boost their survival prospects.
“City are as good a team as I’ve seen in a long time,” Lambert said. “But this game was never going to define our season.”