Match Review: Stoke 1-1 Sunderland

Improved Potters disappointed right at the death

It just wasn’t to be for Stoke City today as they were left heartbroken right at the death, drawing 1-1 to Sunderland at the Britannia. A much improved Potters performance was rewarded with a Marko Arnautovic goal in the 50th minute and, despite a valiant effort to keep Sunderland at bay, a Jermaine Defoe injury time penalty was enough to reignite Sunderland’s survival hopes. Stoke created much more chances, looked more defensively sound and were generally revamped compared to the previous three games; but a host of missed golden opportunities and a couple of defensive scares all but foreshadowed a blow such as this.

Mark Hughes decided to juggle with his starting XI options once again: Jakob Haugaard kept his place after being substituted on last week, Geoff Cameron moved from midfield and filled the gap in central defence after Phil Wollsheid dropped to the bench, Erik Pieters returned rested ahead of Marc Muniesa, Charlie Adam filled the vacant midfield position, Xherdan Shaqiri returned to the side in place of Mame Diouf and Joselu made way for a rare outing for Peter Crouch.

From the off, Stoke City looked much more dangerous than in previous games; for example, it only took a couple of minutes for Shaqiri to send a sumptuous ball over the top for Arnautovic, who slipped at the crucial moment, but the warning signs were there. Stoke’s attacking nature continued as Peter Crouch had a handful of opportunities in the opening 25 minutes: a header from a corner brilliantly saved by Sunderland’s ‘keeper, another header just glancing wide of the target and a glorious chance for a tap-in got away after a superb Arnautovic cross. The Austrian had an opportunity of his own after putting himself through on goal, but his powerful shot went agonisingly off target.

Stoke’s defending was also much improved, with the backline opting to sit much deeper than usual and the midfield pressed harder, forcing Sunderland to play long passes for much of the first half. Although good aerial defending gave Sunderland few good opportunities, a couple of mix-ups between defender and goalkeeper and Stoke’s persistence to play neatly out of the back gifted Sunderland chances to take the lead. Had the Black Cats had a little more quality in the final third they may have been leading going into the break. But this wasn’t the case as the teams settled for a goalless first half, albeit a goal was on the cards for both teams and it looked like whoever did score first would make it almost impossible for the other team.

The second half saw Stoke on the front foot again and it only took five minutes after the game was restarted for Stoke to take the lead: Charlie Adam received the ball in midfield and continued to do what he had been doing for the majority of the game, finding Peter Crouch in the penalty area, his knockdown finding Arnautovic who dummied the ball past the defender and slammed the ball into the back of the net on the turn for his 11th Premier League goal of the season. His and Stoke’s jubilation was to be short lived however, as an another injury concern forced him to limp off the field in the 56th minute, Jon Walters replacing him.

From this point, the game became quite even as both teams had a couple of good opportunities to get themselves a goal, with Sunderland shooting over the bar of a number of occasions, Seb Larsson hit a free kick from a dangerous area straight down Haugaard’s throat and Stoke could have capitalised on a couple of decent counter attacks. But no chance in the game was better than the one that presented itself to Giannelli Imbula towards the closing stages of the game: Crouch’s flick on found Walters who sent Imbula through pretty much one-on-one; but a bit of hesitation and pressure led to him changing direction and a chance for Sunderland defenders to scurry back, this forced Imbula to try and curl it into the far corner and the ball trickled wide, bewildering everyone inside the stadium.

It was perhaps this that gave Sunderland the fight to try and snatch an equaliser and they couldn’t have asked much more from Stoke than for Cameron to upend Jermaine Defoe in the 18 yards box, leaving the referee no choice but to give a last minute spot kick to the relegation threatened side. There were to be no final heroics from Haugaard who, unfortunately, dived the wrong way and allowing Defoe to score in the 90+4th minute, Sunderland fans to go into pandemonium and leaving Stoke fans crestfallen.

Despite the late drama, Stoke should see this performance as a huge improvement considering that they were letting in two goals per half of play and only scored one in over 5 hours of football. Charlie Adam, who’s game time has been scarce of late, provided a new threat to Stoke City. His varied range of passing unlocked new chances for Stoke and seemed to synergise well with the rest of the team: many saw Charlie as Stoke’s man of the match. Peter Crouch also appeared to have more of an impact than his game against Liverpool three weeks ago, his knockdowns occasionally causing problems for Sunderland and making himself an outlet for chance creation and goal-scoring. He even restricted himself to giving away fewer fouls than usual, even winning a few of his own in useful positions. The back four didn’t leave Haugaard completely exposed once, which is a fantastic positive considering how poorly Stoke were defending counter attacks lately.

The Potters looked far away from keeling over and allowing the opposition to take control of the game once again. The team in general looked more focussed and seemed to have a reason to play again; most individual performances merited praise and the team seemed to link up much more effectively. However, Stoke had many chances to make the game 2-0 and give Sunderland no way back and it’s this that Hughes will want to work on for next week away at Crystal Palace, rather than trying to stop the rot. The final two games of the season look much more positive than they had done and hopefully fans will encourage the players to give everyone something healthy to talk about over the Summer.

Stoke City fans were left disappointed at the result rather than the performance today. If that’s not a positive breakthrough, I don’t know what is.

Written by Ben Rowley

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