STOKE-ON-TRENT // Late equalisers automatically suggest a cruelty. A side dramatically denied of victory can reflect how close they came, how narrow the margins are, how one piece of marking would have made the difference.
Yet interventions at the denouement can merely be the belated application of justice. And so it was yesterday when, deep into added time, Matthew Etherington took aim and, with unerring precision, denied Manchester City all three points at the Britannia Stadium.
Stoke were entitled to claim that should have been their reward. They could have had a three-goal lead within half an hour. Their brand of old-fashioned aggression, allied with considerable quality, yielded a series of chances.
Manchester City, rampant at Fulham six days before, were rocked in the first half and revived in the second.
A goal by Micah Richards, drilled in after his own dummy allowed him to deceive Danny Collins and meet James Milner's cross, nevertheless threatened an act of larceny. Stoke had been denied by Milner's goal-line clearance three minutes earlier (when Kenwyne Jones had met an Etherington corner with his knee) and were the more dangerous side throughout.
And when the leveller came, it was in such a fashion to show that Stoke's fearsome physicality is allied with a defter touch. Jones, the man-mountain in attack, won a flick-on, but it was met by Tuncay, the replacement and crowd favourite. With wonderful peripheral vision, he saw Etherington behind and back-heeled the ball into the winger's path.
"Matty's finish was very, very good," said Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager. "Tunny's done very, very well to play him in."
The visiting fans, who had been chorusing "there's only one City" minutes earlier, now found their chant borrowed by the Stoke support. In this particular tale of two Cities, it was the underdog who emerged with greater credit.
Stoke are capable of overwhelming opponents, sustaining a pressure created by set-pieces and savoured by their followers. That was nearly Manchester City's fate in what amounted to an awkward opening. The home supporters' refrain of "Stoke will tear you apart" was part threat, part warning, part prediction.
Rory Delap's long throws were the initial cause, Jermaine Pennant shooting over and Ricardo Fuller's volley being deflected wide by Gareth Barry after two missiles from the touchline.
The high ball was matched by the high intensity at which Stoke played. It yielded more chances, a rampaging Etherington being twice denied by Joe Hart and Fuller skewing a shot past the far post after a one-two with a nonchalant Jones.
Like Tuncay's later touch, it was a sign that finesse and muscle are not mutually exclusive. Stoke's flair players and forceful performers have a shared relish for embarrassing their supposed superiors. Few show them less respect, few attack them with such eagerness.
Branded "long ball, long ball, long ball", by a rather ungracious Roberto Mancini, Stoke's dominance was disputed. "I am disappointed with the result because we deserved to win," the Manchester City manager said.
His defence emerged with more plaudits for their resilience than the manager did for his rhetoric. It is to Manchester City's credit that, while unable to replicate the free-flowing football displayed at Craven Cottage, they did not capitulate. The axis of Kolo Toure and Vincent Kompany retain a resilience and Nigel De Jong has the battling qualities which visits to the Britannia tend to demand.
"First half, we are desperately disappointed we've not come in winning the game," Pulis said. "When you are playing against one of the best teams and you are on top, you have to take your opportunities."
Stoke took only one and it came when Manchester City were closing in on victory. Perhaps disappointment explained Mancini's analysis but it hardly endeared him to Pulis, who asked: "What game was he watching?" He added: "I'll leave it to the experts to decide."
The expert analysis, however, should include admiration of an expertly-taken equaliser.