On Wednesday night, Carlos Tevez returned to work, and pretty much kept Manchester City in the Premier League hunt. Dropped points at home to Chelsea, in the very first test of a difficult run, wouldn't have augured well for City, especially with Manchester United sashaying along the run-in, twirling a cane. So well done, Carlos.
In the stands, a young chap was waving a banner. "A wee lad in the stadium, no more than ten years old, is holding up a ripped-up bedsheet with the legend WELCOME BACK TEVEZ on it," wrote your super soaraway MBM hack. "A decent, well-spaced effort for one so youthful. A bright future in typography would await, were both the publishing and newspaper industries not totally jiggered beyond repair. And polite, to boot!"
Well, how wrong I was. "I am the boy with the WELCOME BACK TEVEZ banner," writes Jack Winter. "I would just like to thank you for the lovely complement about my banner making skills. But I would like to say I am 14 years old, a fantastic compliment you saying I don't look any younger than 10." Apologies for the age-related confusion, Jack. To be honest, everyone under 35 looks the same to me these days.
Anyway, Jack will no doubt have enjoyed Tevez's contribution during the week, and will be hoping for more of it this evening. With leaders United hosting Fulham on Monday, City will be desperate for a win to at least temporarily regain the leadership of the division. But what a place to have to come and get it. In some ways, this is an even bigger ask than Chelsea at home. It is, in other words, another crucial hurdle in the title run-in. But then, aren't they all.
Kick off: 5.30pm.
Stoke City: Begovic, Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson, Jerome, Whelan, Whitehead, Etherington, Walters, Crouch.
Subs: Sorensen, Jones, Pennant, Upson, Delap, Shotton, Palacios.
Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Richards, Toure, Clichy, Toure Yaya, Barry, Silva, Balotelli, Nasri, Dzeko.
Subs: Pantilimon, Milner, Johnson, Kolarov, Savic, Tevez, De Jong.
Referee: Howard Webb (S Yorkshire)
The teams are out! Stoke are decked out in their red-and-white number, Manchester City in that pretty powder blue. "Watch out for a wee Italian on the sidelines tonight, his face white as a sheet every time Stoke get a throw-in in the City half," writes Justin Kavanagh. "He'll start the game a youthful-looking 47, but might not look a day over 65 by full-time."
And we're off! Stoke get the ball rolling. Or, more to the point, flying. It sails straight down the middle of the pitch, and into the hands of Hart. Manchester City have never won a game at the Britannia; they really need to break that hoodoo tonight. But will it make much difference? Not according to Niall Mullen: "It's very polite of everyone to go through the charade of the title race when, as everyone knows, to paraphrase Gary Lineker, the Premier League is a series of 90 minute contests after which Man United take the trophy."
3 min: A free kick for City, the best part of 40 yards out on the left. Nasri swings a very decent ball towards the far post, where Dzeko eyebrows a weak header wide right. That was a lovely free kick, and chance spurned. Admittedly a difficult one, but a chance nonetheless.
5 min: No real shape to this game yet. "Tell that wee Jack he really should learn how to spell 'compliment' if he wants that career in typography," brays Jason Davies in an email headed "Complements". Well, I would do, Jason, but in your joyous rush to publicly berate a 14-year-old for a spelling mistake, you appear to have overlooked the fact that he hasn't made one. Oh Jason! How could you! Providing the Guardian's naysayers with a case for Shut Journalism, on this of all days!
7 min: A lovely not-quite-summer-yet evening, the sun occasionally flitting across the turf. City seeing most of the ball, but doing very little with it.
9 min: Walters gets a yard on Kolo Toure down the inside-left channel. He heads for the byline and sends a chest-height cross into the area. With a couple of Stoke shirts lurking, Hart does well to claim.
11 min: Balotelli attempts to break clear down the right, but runs the ball out of play. He gets pelters from the crowd for his trouble. "The ESPN commentator has just said 'these are enervating days at the Britannia'," reports J A Hopkin. "Did he mean 'energising' or was he commenting on the lack of quality in the match thus far?"
12 min: From deep on the left, Wilson rakes a diagonal ball into the area for Crouch, who heads down for Jerome, level with the left-hand post. Jerome can't connect properly as he attempts a scissor kick from ten yards. That would have been a picturebook route-one goal.
14 min: Silva jinks around down the inside-right channel. He looks for the top-left corner from 20-odd yards, but his effort is deflected out for a corner. The set piece is a dismal waste of everyone's time.
15 min: From the Manchester City corner, Stoke break upfield. Jerome romps into the Manchester City half, drawing the two defenders who have hung back. He's got two men free on the right; a flick with the outside of his boot would set them both clear. But his head isn't up, and he's crowded off the ball. Chance there.
17 min: Whelan is down in some pain after his ankle is clumsily stood on by Barry. I don't think there was any malicious intent - and indeed, after a period of treatment, Whelan is up and about - but nevertheless that was a potentially serious injury. Barry wasn't in control, and on another day could easily have been sent off. That was in the area, too, so should have been a penalty.
20 min: Intricate one-touch passing by Manchester City, all across the front of the Stoke area. Pretty patterns. Eventually, just to the right of the D, Yaya Youre attempts to lift a cheeky ball up over Begovic and and down into the right-hand side of the goal. There's not enough distance to work with, though, and the attempt sails over. Superb play from the visitors, though.
23 min: Hart has been demanding someone switch the floodlights on. And he's got his way. As we touched upon earlier, it isn't summer yet. "I'm all in favour of giving youth its proverbial head, but surely I can't be the only one perturbed to hear that kids as young as 14 follow MBMs!?" splutters Ryan Dunne. "Given the frequency of riffs involving bevvy, hoes and middle-aged disappointment, I always assumed it was an 18-and-older area around here!"
25 min: Whitehead catches Silva upside the head with his elbow. Again, it's not malicious, but it is effing clumsy, and could easily be a sending off if the referee was of a mind. But it is Howard Webb, who ensured the 2010 World Cup final developed into such a splendid show.
28 min: Crouch goes after a bouncing ball in the Manchester City area. He's gently blocked off by Richards as Hart comes out to claim. It's never a penalty, but that doesn't stop the home crowd turning up the volume.
30 min: Shawcross pulls Balotelli to the ground by the face. On the touchline, Roberto Mancini does a little funky soft-shoe shuffle. He's not best pleased. It wasn't much, though. But this is heating up a wee bit. "Tell Jason Davies that spelling wouldn't really figure in a career in typography," writes Jeff Cumpson. "Graphic designers and the like are provided copy; their only job is to make it look nice. If Jack also wanted to design type faces, a knowledge of the alphabet - which it seems he possesses - would be the only requirement. On to your future, Jack!"
33 min: Clichy gains a yard down the left. A brilliant cross to the far post, where Dzeko heads powerfully wide from close range. Once again, he should have done better. Probably for the best that he missed, though, as in the build up, the ball had gone about a yard out of play off a City shin. "City have never won at the Britannia?" splutters Harry Stopes. "My memory must be deceiving me then, our kid, cause I was there when we won 1-0 in 98-99 when Ged Weikens scored. And that's without mentioning the game we won 5-2 (and still went down) on the last day of the previous season." Ah right. I think I might have missed out the "in the Premier League" bit. Sorry. Jack Winter wouldn't have made a mistake like that. Jason Davies wouldn't have made a mistake like that.
37 min: Manchester City are pumping a few long balls into the Stoke area. They're not getting much change out of this tactic, as you'd expect. Here's Philippa Booth re Ryan Dunne's assertion that MBMs are mainly about bevvy, hoes and middle-aged disappointment: "I must have missed the one where we talked about gardening implements."
38 min: Zabaleta cuts inside from the right, making his way towards a loose ball in the Stoke area. He should take a whack at goal, but attempts to find a team-mate in the middle, and his pass is blocked, then cleared.
39 min: Barry is booked for tugging Jerome on the shoulder as the Stoke attacker looks to break down the right. The resulting free kick, which sees Stoke load the box, comes to naught.
41 min: A corner to Stoke down the right. The ball's flicked on by Shawcross at the near post, and looks to be heading into the left-hand side of the net, but Zabaleta is on hand to clear off the line! It's a wonderful clearance, too, as he's facing his own goal, and has to extend a leg and hook the ball away. "Just wondering, did you receive any emails from that crying City fan at the Swansea match the other week?" asks Adam in New York. Not a peep, Adam in New York, not a peep. "I think he needs to explain himself. Maybe young Jack Winter can give him a consoling hug the next time he sees him. Or pass him another one of those bedsheets to dry those tiny tears away."
44 min: Balotelli bustles down the inside-left channel, then suddenly changes up the gears, breaks into the area, and looks to curl a low shot into the bottom-right corner. Begovic claims well, but it needed a good save, as that was a very decent attempt.
HALF TIME: Stoke City 0-0 Manchester City. And that's that for the half. Not exactly top-notch entertainment, but not the worst goalless 45 minutes you'll sit though either. Stoke could have had a penalty for Barry's crude lunge on Whelan, but nobody made much of a claim at the time, so maybe we're not supposed to harp on about it. "Is Aguero injured?" asks Richard Williams (not our one). "Much as I'm keen to stay abreast of teenage City fans' sign-writing and spelling abilities, I'd suggest a reference to the absence of the team's leading scorer on the pitch or the bench is conspicuous by its absence. You might say such a reference would complement an otherwise textbook MBM." Heh. And who am I to deny The Weaver? He is indeed injured, although I have no idea what sort of knack he is suffering from. Tevez is very much up and about today, though, and he'll feature at some point during the next 45 minutes, I'll be bound.
LOCAL ADVERTISING BREAK:
As seen at the Plaza, Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent. In 1964. To be honest, I was looking for that advert with Stanley Matthews dribbling the ball for about three seconds before stopping to suck down a cigarette with a massive grin spread across his coupon, but this will have to do.
And we're off again! No changes by either side. Manchester City get things moving. "Is the recalcitrant Tevez really welcome back then?" asks Iain Chambers. "I'm indifferent to footballers behaving like jackasses off the field. It really is none of my business. Tevez though has quite possibly cost his team a first league title since 1267 (this may be a year or two off), and were I a Man City fan I'd be far less forgiving of his extended holiday."
46 min: A beautiful pass down the inside-left channel by Silva, releasing Dzeko into the area. He's clear, but his attempt to round Begovic is a wee bit clumpish, and the ball is parried clear.
47 min: Manchester City come straight back at Stoke, Nasri having a dig from distance. It's low, towards the bottom left, and fielded by Begovic. It appears City have been given something of a rocket. "I agree with Ryan Dunne, it's disgraceful that you're grooming 14 year olds for hot MBM action," chides Niall Mullen. "That is, sitting over a laptop or mobile phone desperately hoping you're witty enough to please a journalist who is losing the will to live. Run, Jack, run for your life!"
50 min: Etherington skedaddles down the left and wins Stoke a corner. From which Whelan sends a looping bomb towards the far post. Jerome meets it, heading straight across goal. With Walters making a nuisance of himself, Hart does well to fist the ball out of his six-yard area and away from danger.
51 min: Jerome is replaced by Pennant. The switch doesn't go down particularly well with sections of the home crowd.
54 min: Completed passes are at a premium here. "So the only products advertised in Stoke-on-Trent's movie halls in 1963 were ice creams and cold drinks?" wonders Prateek Chadha. "Was this because of some kind of local law? I can't think of any other reason for these being the only products advertised in December in Stoke-on-Trent. Or were soup and hot meals yet to be discovered back then?"
56 min: A free kick for Manchester City, 30 yards out, just out on the left. Balotelli hammers a witless kick straight into the wall, but wins a corner. The set piece is as lame as you like. City don't have the demeanour of a title-winning team at the moment.
57 min: Richards has just clattered full face into his team-mate Zabaleta. Both players will be OK, but give them a couple of minutes, eh.
59 min: WHAT A CROUCHIGOL!!! Stoke City 1-0 Manchester City. A long goal kick. Crouch wins a header down the inside-right channel. Pennant knocks it back. It's dropping 30 yards out, just to the right of the Manchester City area. Crouch takes one touch to keep it up, then hammers the ball along an unstoppable arc up, down and into the top-left corner. What a volley! I'd have to see that again, but I don't think that ball touched the ground from the minute it left Begovic's boot, until Hart picked it from the net. Think Glenn Hoddle for Spurs against Nottingham Forest in 1978. Yes, that good.
62 min: Silva is replaced by Johnson.
64 min: Once again, Manchester City's title challenge is in the balance. Yes, there are still plenty of points to play for, but Manchester United's run-in is so much easier that their neighbours can afford few, if any, slip ups. Tevez is on the touchline warming up. It can't be long.
65 min: Wilson is booked for a late slide on Johnson. "Tevez has quite rightly been crucified for his actions, but if he wins the title for City then Jack Winter's bedsheet will become the Manchester equivalent of the Shroud of Turin in years to com," suggests Ian Burch. "At least there will be no need to carbon date it to see if it's a fake."
67 min: Balotelli has the heat on. He shoulder barges Pennant to the floor, a truly preposterous challenge. He flashes a grin at Howard Webb, who makes a big show of miming CALM DOWN, but doesn't whip out a card.
69 min: Johnson twists and turns down the inside-left channel, but can't get a shot away. City are bustling around without achieving very much.
72 min: Yaya Toure has a dig from the best part of 30 yards. It's straight at Begovic. Seconds earlier, Balotelli attempted to latch onto a loose ball in the area, but the keeper was out to hack clear. The goal was left gaping, but Johnson, 35 yards from goal, couldn't fashion a shot.
74 min: City make the change: Barry is replaced by Tevez. "Prateek Chadha clearly never went to the pictures in England in the sixties," writes Mark Elliott. "I was only a kid but my recollection is that the heating was either full on or off, and in the winter the place was stifling hot and often smoky as well. So ice cream and cold drinks in the interval were the obvious choices."
75 min: No goals by Tevez yet.
76 min: GOAL!!! Stoke City 1-1 Manchester City. Clichy, on the left, slides the ball inside to Yaya Toure, who lets rip from 40 yards. It's a decent, rising shot, but is deflected to the left by the head of Shawcross, and clanks in off Begovic's saloon-door hands. The keeper should have kept that out, although in fairness it was a powerful shot, and a pretty big deflection.
78 min: Whelan has a lash from 25 yards, after one-twoing with Crouch. His attempt flies miles into the stand. "If Jack Winter really is 14," begins Niall Mullen, "then I imagine that bedsheet is standing up on its own." Someone had to say it, I suppose. So there you have it: Open Journalism, working for you.
81 min: Etherington is replaced by Palacios.
83 min: City are coming back at Stoke again and again, without much happening for them at the business end of the pitch.
84 min: Pennant strips Clichy down the right. He stands one up to the far post, where Johnson thighs out for a corner. Shawcross meets the set piece at the left-hand post, but sends a header high and wide. Once that's all done, Milner comes on for Zabaleta.
86 min: City suddenly aren't seeing much of the ball, Stoke pressing them back. Eventually Stoke win a corner down the right. Pennant swings it to the far post, where Crouch heads the ball back across goal and into the top-right corner. Sadly for Stoke, the initial corner kick was sent swinging out of play. The effort is disallowed.
88 min: Johnson pulls a ball back from the byline on the right. Tevez can't quite connect. Nasri can, but his effort is blocked and balloons into the hands of Begovic.
90 min: Palacios, on the edge of the Manchester City D, attempts to curl one into the top right. It's a fine, firm effort, but inches too high. That was as close as they come.
90 min +1: There will be five added minutes, of which this is the first. Yaya Toure has another flash from distance, this one heading over the bar though.
90 min +2: Crouch is replaced by Jones.
90 min +3: A corner for Stoke down the left. It's wasted, possession gifted straight back to Manchester City.
90 min +4: But Manchester City aren't doing anything with it. "You're gonna win EFF all," chant the home crowd, and already you sense they're right. Yaya Toure bundles Palacios off the ball. Foul. He argues in such a melodramatic manner that Howard Webb has no option but to book him.
FULL TIME: Stoke City 1-1 Manchester City. And that's that. Manchester City are back on top of the table, but they've played a game more than Manchester United, and should fall three points behind on Monday, you'd imagine. Final word to the unfairly maligned Jason Davies, who emails in to defend himself, pointing out that a full complement of complement/compliments were used in Jack Winter's email, and therefore his criticism was vaild. "Do you read your own posts?" he asks, putting a gleeful boot into your MBM hack. Ooyah! Oof! Well, doesn't that just serve me right.