Stoke and Shaqiri expose pretenders Man City, says Neil Humphreys
Stoke's Shaqiri shows City to be nothing but title pretenders
(Arnautovic 7, 15)
MANCHESTER CITY 0
Manchester City are imposters at the Premier League summit.
The bumpkin billionaires are bluffers forever in search of a banana skin.
And the latest slip came at Stoke last night.
Xherdan Shaqiri threw down the banana skin, picking up two exquisite assists in a peerless display whilst underlining City's shocking shortcomings.
The Swiss made cheese of the Manchester chumps. He exuded an artistry that was beyond anyone on City's payroll, both on the pitch and in the dugout.
Manuel Pellegrini isn't on borrowed time, but he certainly leads a charmed life.
When Stoke found themselves two goals to the good, Pellegrini offered nothing, nothing at all.
He was entirely bereft of ideas and options, throwing on three subs with half an hour still to play with farcical consequences.
His back four was brittle, the central midfield duo of Fernando and Fernandinho nothing short of calamitous and the front four invisible.
There were echoes of this abject, listless showings in the recent Champions League defeat in Juventus and the Liverpool debacle. When City face an enterprising, industrious side, quick on the counter-attack, they unravel.
Not a single City player came close to mimicking the invention shown by Shaqiri.
He needed just four minutes to demonstrate why he shouldn't be at Stoke. When he won a treble at Bayern Munich in 2013, he didn't anticipate future weekends in the blustery Potteries.
As he floated away from Fernando and carved open Aleksandar Kolarov, he was an artist above those around him, like watching Adele sing with those substandard impersonators on that viral video clip.
The nifty Shaqiri shimmied past City's training cones and clipped his pass to give Marko Arnautovic an early Christmas present. His marker, Bacary Sagna, went missing. Going AWOL proved to be contagious for anyone in a City shirt.
But the electrifying move offered vindication for Stoke's manager.
Mark Hughes always seems to come into contests against City with a chip on his shoulder, still unhappy with "the one who got away" tag once the real money poured into the Etihad.
He opted for an all-skills approach, picking Ibrahim Afellay and Bojan Krkic to go with Shaqiri and Arnautovic and, after just 15 minutes, Hughes was happier than Pharrell Williams on a loop.
Shaqiri and Arnautovic combined again to surpass the excellence of their first goal.
Shaqiri's twist was so fast it's a wonder he didn't leave the trailing, spinning Fernando with broken bones.
Like a Swiss Messi, the little wizard curled a pass that sliced through City's centre-backs, a steely blade through silk, before finishing on Arnautovic's laces. The Austrian flicked his second past Joe Hart.
And all of this happened in the first half, when Stoke faced the gustiest conditions. City had the elements in their favour and were still gone with the wind.
Shaqiri was sublime, but Fernando was at fault for both goals. He remains a worrying weak link that will cost City the serious silverware.
Pellegrini's men hardly have the air of champions-in-waiting. If anything, the air is stale and often pungent.
Arnautovic's header was a centimetre away on 36 minutes. His scuffed effort hit the post after 42 minutes. His shot bobbled just wide in the 53rd minute. City were a woeful rabble in the face of Stoke's incisive counter-attacking.
Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero were missing, but David Silva and Hart had returned and yet the princes portrayed paupers. Silva rarely saw the ball.
The great pretenders were outclassed, overwhelmed by a side that lost 2-0 to Sunderland last weekend.
In many respects, the second half's alarm bells rang loudest. City's response was pitiful, unable to break sweat or penetrate the wall of wind on the halfway line.
In desperation, Pellegrini used all three substitutes within an hour, a ridiculous decision that forced City to play the final 18 minutes with 10 men after Fernando hobbled off clutching his hamstring.
He'd already removed Silva, Fernandinho and Wilfried Bony, but it was hard to tell.
City's empty shells were participating in a competition of anonymity.
Tedious talk of an "open" title race increasingly insults the intelligence. The endless stumbling at the summit is less a battle of the elite as it is a trying test of mediocrity.
City are just the latest contenders to falter in a repetitive storyline that's beginning to irritate.
Stoke deserved their victory and Shaqiri may deserve a transfer to a bigger club in the near future.
Based on last night's performance, he would walk into City's fumbling first team.