Silva gamble turns to dust

Guardiola's team selection backfires as stubborn Stoke dent City's title hopes with 0-0 draw

LONDON • Equating this game to epic events in Barcelona would be like comparing Manchester's Arndale Centre to the Spanish city's grand basilica Sagrada Familia.

But Wednesday's 0-0 Premier League stalemate at the Etihad Stadium had its moments, its significance and some commanding performances, such as from Stoke City captain Ryan Shawcross, which frustrated Manchester City and helped Chelsea get closer to the title.

City manager Pep Guardiola refused to concede the chase was over, saying only "the gap was big and is still big", but this was a huge missed opportunity.

Guardiola gambled by resting key players John Stones, David Silva and Raheem Sterling ahead of this weekend's FA Cup quarter-final at Middlesbrough and next week's Champions League last-16 second- leg trip to Monaco. It backfired, with City only looking like breaking down Stoke after Guardiola threw on Silva as a substitute with just under an hour gone.

"I have said before, we take it game by game," said Guardiola of the lead held by Chelsea. "The lead is 10 points and we now have one less game.

"We're going to see what happens in the next game and then take it game by game. When a gap is like this, you have to focus like that; not on big targets."

Striker Sergio Aguero (front) and midfielder Fernandinho looking dejected after Manchester City were held to a goal-less draw by Stoke, keeping them in third place. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Spaniard insisted that he had no regrets over his gamble to rest key players and, with City looking impressive in the FA Cup and Champions League, there was logic behind his selection.

"The priority is the next game," he said. "The rotations are good when you have successful results and they are not brilliant when you miss out.

"When you have one game a week you can play only 11 players no problems. If not, you have to make a rotation and it makes it so difficult."

City ran into stubborn visitors, with Stoke getting their tactics right, going 4-4-2.

"It's about your team committing to what you want to do," Stoke manager Mark Hughes said. "It is down to them. You can give them some kind of structure and a platform but they have got to commit and they did to a man."

He was pleased with his team's response following their last away outing, a disastrous 4-0 defeat at Tottenham, but admitted he was surprised, and relieved, when he discovered Silva was not starting for the home side.

"You saw his influence when he came on," said Hughes. "If I'm honest, I was pleased he wasn't starting because he does give them an extra element to their play."

Overall, Stoke belied their wretched record against the elite with a display of defiance.

"Very, very satisfying," said Hughes, savouring a point on his return to the club that sacked him in 2009.

His counterpart drew little comfort. A title challenge has dissipated on their own soil, where Everton, Southampton, Middlesbrough and Tottenham have also held City, leaving them with a worse home record than Burnley.

Guardiola admitted: "Our results away are much better."

City's next three league games pit them against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. If this was an opportunity to apply a little pressure to Antonio Conte's team, it passed them by.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'Silva gamble turns to dust'. Print Edition | Subscribe