The front cover of The Oatcake fanzine carried the headline: “Michael Owen finally signs for a big club”. So big, it turned out, the former Ballon D’Or winner, once of Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United and now trying to resurrect his career at Stoke City, was restricted to a 90th-minute substitute appearance. He was unable to influence the match – he did not manage a single touch – but he must have been impressed by what he saw of Stoke’s refusal to be broken by a superior team.
This was the fifth time Roberto Mancini has managed a team here and, after four successive 1-1 draws and a defeat in the FA Cup, he is still waiting for his first victory.
His side had the better of the play, denied a winner by Ryan Shawcross’s goal-line clearance with the last kick of the match, but they were below their best and only sporadically threatened after Javi García had marked his debut by heading in Carlos Tevez’s free-kick for the equaliser.
They were, however, entitled to be aggrieved to be behind in the first place. Peter Crouch was guilty of a clear infringement in the build-up to the opening goal, using his left hand twice in quick succession before slotting a shot past Joe Hart.
“If we want to talk about the first goal, we should talk about NBA,” Mancini said. “It’s basketball, not football.” He was smiling but there was a clear flicker of annoyance after a game in which Stoke did not create another clear chance.
The champions had most of the ball, culminating in a frantic spell of pressure in stoppage time, but there were spells, too, when they looked unusually disjointed, perhaps thinking a little too much about Tuesday’s game against Real Madrid.
Mancini took off Tevez, his most dangerous player, just after an hour and gave David Silva, a substitute, 16 minutes on a day when Scott Sinclair had a quiet debut and, for the most part, the team generally controlled the play but lacked creative ideas.
Mancini said Sergio Agüero, who was not even on the bench, could still play at the Bernabéu despite the Argentinian’s knee injury keeping him out since the seventh minute of the first match of the season. What is certain is that City will need to be more switched-on against the La Liga champions.
Stoke presented a very different form of opposition to Cristiano Ronaldo et al but it would be demeaning to describe their tactics as exclusively long-ball. Charlie Adam displayed some neat touches on his debut, even though he was guilty of losing García in the penalty area for the equalising goal.
Steven Nzonzi, another new player, had an impressive debut. Shawcross’s final, desperate clearance epitomised his efforts to keep check of Tevez and Mario Balotelli when they were linking up well.
The home side will be disappointed they could not do more to make Maicon’s first game in the Premier League an uncomfortable experience but Owen, watching from the bench, will know a little more now about the spirit of togetherness at his new club and Jonathan Walters, the man whose place is now under threat, worked hard to show that he wants to stay in the team.
“Looking at the major incidents, we had the run of the ball but I think we deserved it,” Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, said. “We worked so hard. We were playing against one of the top teams in Europe – just look at the players they left out, the ones not even on the bench, it is a phenomenal squad they have got – and to cope with a team like that you have to play as one. And that’s what we did.”
Pulis was less impressed by the nature of García’s goal, describing it as “very, very poor marking and very unlike us”. Owen, he explained, was still not properly fit after his long summer without a club.
As for Crouch’s handball, Stoke have been the victim of too many poor refereeing decisions in the past for them to feel too guilty. “I’ll take that on the chin. It’s lovely for us, a smaller club, getting a decision against a bigger club,” Pulis said unapologetically.
His team had to dig in deep during those final, frantic moments when García and the substitute Edin Dzeko almost won the match. García, the £16m signing from Benfica, had his chance from Silva’s corner only for Asmir Begovic to turn the ball against the right-hand post then gratefully gathering the rebound.
A minute later, however, Stoke’s goalkeeper was dangerously close to ruining an otherwise impressive performance, charging to the edge of his penalty area for a ball he was never going to reach. Dzeko got there first and his looping shot was heading into an exposed net before Shawcross, scrambling back, hooked the ball to safety, with inches to spare.
“Here it is always difficult, not only for us but all the teams,” Mancini said. “We had two incredible chances at the end and we were unlucky. It is a difficult pitch for us.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010