It’s never a good sign when all of the talk before a game is over who is not playing, and the net result of a crazy, crazy night at Stoke is that this is likely to continue for a few more weeks yet.
As expected Lukas Rupp didn’t make the starting XI, but Daniel Farke was able to call upon the services of Alex Tettey, who only a few months ago was indispensable in the Canary midfield. Josh Martin was also bought in.
The game began with all the pace and excitement of a grandmaster chess tournament. Stoke formed a line of three half-way into the City half and were content to allow Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson to play the ball back and forth, secure in the knowledge that the options behind were well marshalled.
This didn’t stop City for long though. Martin did well to retain possession on the left and knock the ball infield to Teemu Pukki. He found Marco Stiepermann in the centre who fed the ball to Emi Buendia. One-nil.
Ten minutes later it got better. Buendia received the ball inside the Norwich half and played a first-time, curling long ball behind the defence. Pukki ran onto it, chested it down and smashed a left-foot shot across the goal and in.
It was all going so well.
Ten minutes later, the game – and possibly the next few games – took a decisive turn. After a clearance, Tim Krul went down with what seemed to be a thigh injury and went straight off. Michael McGovern is a very experienced keeper, let us not forget that, but he isn’t able to play the ball out from the back in the same way, and this almost proved decisive.
Although Stoke came out for the second half with a renewed intensity, it was initially to little effect and they created few chances. Tettey was doing a great job as foil to Oliver Skipp and showed great tenacity to win the ball in midfield, poking it to Martin, who fed the ball to a suspiciously offside-looking Pukki who rounded the keeper to score his second.
Moments later, it all began to go wrong.
Firstly, the superb Buendia went in for a 50/50 ball, high up the pitch collecting a soft yellow but 10 minutes later, with Christoph Zimmermann ready to come on for Pukki, he raised a boot going in for another needless tackle and was sent off.
Within a minute, a cross from the left was headed into the back of the net by Tyrese Campbell and Stoke were back in the game.
From then on, it was all Stoke.
City were simply unable to get the ball away or keep possession. Skipp made a superb tackle in the penalty area and from the resulting corner, Zimmermann was beaten to the ball by Nathan Collins. 2-3.
It was then wave after wave of long balls into the box and corners for the last 20 minutes. City defended stoically but the ball kept coming back time and time again.
Finally, after five added minutes, the whistle was blown.
So, three more points, still top of the league, but at what cost?
Losing Krul will be a huge blow and another suspension for Buendia will strain an already depleted squad to its limits. Once again, the most critical members of the squad over the next few weeks are likely to be the physio team.