Manchester City faced a tricky test at the Britannia against Stoke City, and they passed with flying colors. City couldn't afford to drop points and, despite an inconsistent first half performance, secured all three with a convincing second half showing and a 4-1 victory.
The match brought about plenty of positives, some negatives, and a reminder that Peter Crouch is just a thorn in City's side. So what did we learn from this midweek match?
1. City have more than a Yaya Toure problem
While this was a great win for City, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the one glaring negative in City's performance.
This has been evident for weeks, but it bears repeating as City get close to having Yaya Toure back in the fold: their defensive problems go well beyond the absence of Toure. While Yaya is an ace at locking things down in the middle of the field, and is wonderful at tracking back to aid the back four, City are struggling with such rudimentary defensive tasks as marking opposing players on crosses.
A prime example of this came on Stoke's first half goal, where Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta let Peter Crouch of all people have an uncontested header to cancel out a great individual goal from Sergio Aguero earlier in the half. If there's one player that should never be neglected in the penalty area by City defenders, it's Peter Crouch, and not just because of his height (more on this shortly).
While City tightened things up in the second half, the first half consisted of an uncomfortable amount of freedom for Victor Moses, Crouch, and the rest of the Stoke attack.
Other than the Abu Dhabi friendly against Hamburg, City haven't kept a clean sheet since December 20th. With the number of matches remaining to catch Chelsea dwindling, and a Champions League date with Barcelona right around the corner, these repeated lapses by the City defense won't do.
2. Peter Crouch is the devil
Previously I had mentioned that if there's one player City should always be sure to mark, that player is Peter Crouch. Not only is this because of his unmistakable height, but also because Peter Crouch has a bit of a history of scoring against City in recent years. Whether it was his Champions League dream killing goal for Spurs back in 2010, or that unreal volley for Stoke in 2012, City defenders should know by now not to give Peter Crouch room to inflict damage. Naturally, City gave him that room and, once again, Crouch made them pay.
3. James Milner is an angel
If you had to guess on New Year's Day who the best City player would be in 2015, you probably would have guessed someone like Sergio Aguero or Yaya Toure, and that would have been wholly understandable. But through the first six weeks of the new year, James Milner may be City's most consistent and productive player.
Today, Milner played a key role in just about everything that resulted in a positive for City. His goal line clearance, while controversial, still prevented an opening goal for Stoke. He also got the ball forward to Aguero, who did the rest for City's first goal, and put home their second with a great header.
With Edin Dzeko largely out of form lately, and Stevan Jovetic out of City's Champions League squad, James Milner will have to be a difference maker down the stretch for City. Recently, he's been just that.
4. City are at their best when the stakes are highest
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but this year's City team seems to sleepwalk through games that aren't absolute must-wins, then puts things together when their backs are against the wall. The more things change, the more they stay the same, or something like that.
City remain seven points back of Chelsea in the Premier League table, as Chelsea squeaked by Everton at Stamford Bridge.