Kelechi Iheanacho scored twice as Manchester City prepared for their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid with a straightforward 4-0 Premier League victory over Stoke City on Saturday.
With City’s top-four status not yet secure, manager Manuel Pellegrini faces a difficult balancing act as he tries to juggle domestic and continental priorities.
While he opted not to make wholesale changes to his starting XI for the visit of Mark Hughes’ men, the Chilean rested Vincent Kompany and Kevin De Bruyne with one eye on Tuesday’s first leg at the Etihad Stadium.
City did not miss the Belgian duo as they moved into a 2-0 half-time lead thanks to a 35th-minute Fernando header and a Sergio Aguero penalty, awarded following a Ryan Shawcross challenge on Iheanacho.
Stoke rallied after the break as they threatened to reduce the deficit, but Iheanacho put the match to bed when he buried a cutback from Pablo Zabaleta, who was making his 300th City appearance, and added further gloss to the scoreline with a fourth.
The result moves City third ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Sunderland on Sunday, while local rivals Manchester United – not in league action this weekend – are now five points back in fifth.
Stoke were dealt a huge blow in the build-up with the news that Ibrahim Afellay would miss several months due to a knee ligament injury, and it was the hosts who posed the early threat through Iheanacho.
Aguero wriggled out of a tight spot on the right wing before feeding Iheanacho, who directed his low strike just wide of the left-hand upright.
The Nigerian forward was unable to bring the ball under control when played in by David Silva in the 12th minute, before Glenn Whelan almost caught Joe Hart off guard with an ambitious free-kick from distance – the goalkeeper pushing over his crossbar for a corner.
Shay Given gratefully collected the ball when it deflected kindly into his grasp off Nicolas Otamendi from a Jesus Navas free-kick, but despite their dominance of possession, City initially struggled to truly test their former keeper.
However, after Joselu proved unable to direct his headed effort goalwards from an inviting Marko Arnautovic cross, the deadlock was finally broken when Navas’ corner was glanced beyond Given by Fernando.
Yaya Toure looked to have squandered a chance to double the lead when he opted against shooting from close range eight minutes later, but Iheanacho was ultimately pulled down by Shawcross as part of the same move, winning a penalty.
Aguero stepped up to confidently net his seventh goal in five Premier League matches from the spot.
A groin injury forced Stoke to replace Given with Jakob Haugaard at half-time, before Joselu failed to convert another Arnautovic ball into the box.
Mame Biram Diouf headed just wide as Stoke enjoyed a period of pressure, but the hosts’ threat remained and Toure’s side-footed effort was kept out by Haugaard.
Arnautovic, seemingly frustrated at his team-mates’ inability to convert his deliveries, decided to go it alone when he forced Hart into a save after drifting in from the right, but Iheanacho ultimately put the result beyond doubt.
After firing home unmarked from the centre of the box following good work by Zabaleta, the 19-year-old rounded Haugaard having been played in by Wilfried Bony – his 10th and 11th goals for the club.
City’s joy at the result was tempered somewhat by an injury picked up by Toure in the closing stages. The midfielder soldiered on to the final whistle, but there will be concerns over his fitness ahead of the Madrid double-header.
Key Opta stats:
– Sergio Aguero has scored 22 goals in his last 21 Premier League appearances.
– Aguero has netted in five consecutive Premier League games for the fourth time in his career (also November 2013, January 2014 and May 2015).
– Kelechi Iheanacho has scored 11 goals from 15 shots on target in all competitions for Man City this season.
– Stoke City are the third team in Premier League history to concede 4+ goals in three consecutive Premier League games, after West Ham in March 2008 and Wigan Athletic in August 2010.
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