Match Review: Return of the Mame
Stoke City had to come from behind to end their winless streak today and push the club to ninth spot in the Premier League, as they overcame West Ham United 2-1 on the final game of the season and the final game at the ‘Britannia’ Stadium. It seemed that the Potters’ dismal form would continue when Michail Antonio poked West Ham into a first half lead; but a charismatic second half turned it all around as goals from Giannelli Imbula and substitute Mame Diouf ended the 15/16 season on a high.
Hughes made a couple of notable changes to the XI that lost against Crystal Palace last week: Shay Given returned in goal for Jakob Haugaard, Philipp Wollscheid was reinstated to the defence as Phil Bardsley made way, utility man Geoff Cameron shifting to right-back. Jon Walters was preferred to Xherdan Shaqiri on the right-wing, Bojan started ahead of in-form Charlie Adam and the striker’s dice was rolled again and landed on Joselu, replacing Peter Crouch. The most significant absentee was for West Ham, who had Dimitri Payet out injured.
The first half was, once again, a frustrating one. Both teams showed signs of danger with West Ham adopting a more controlled build-up play and Stoke relying on a more direct approach, with many opportunities spurned with offside movements. Bojan looked lively on his return to the first team and was eager to be on the ball, but a lack of movement up top and a lack of creativity from Stoke’s foundations denied any kind of serious threat to the West Ham goal.
It was West Ham who plunged Stoke into losing form once again. Before the resulting corner, Andy Carroll and Marko Arnautovic looked to be successfully grinding each other’s gears and causing trouble in the penalty area. Perhaps is was this that switched off the home team’s concentration, as Winston Reid’s header dropped to Antonio who powered the loose ball past Given for 1-0 in the 23rd minute. A mixture of bad luck and bad defending gave the Potters a mountain to climb, but the remainder of the first half slowed into a drab affair once again and sent the Stoke team into the dressing room with that all familiar losing feeling.
The root of Stoke’s problems didn’t seem like a lack of effort, more concentration and confidence. The back four looked suspect against quick football once again, for example Erik Pieters was constantly chasing after makeshift right wing back James Tomkins and the rest didn’t seem to be able to play out neatly forwards due to relentless West Ham pressure. The attack showed little creativity and didn’t produce much magic when they did have the ball, Jon Walters was caught offside at least three times. It demanded a second half turnaround in performance if it was to reflect in the result, but Stoke were only one goal down, there was hope.
The second half begun with a huge scare for Stoke and a wonderful chance for West Ham to go 2-0 up. Antonio galloped past Pieters once more and left Stoke all at sea, Antonio crossed in low towards West Ham’s Sako who had, seemingly, an open goal; but Shay Given flung himself desperately towards the near post and produced an astounding save to keep the scoreline in tact. It seemed to be this moment that Stoke came alive, all signs of fatigue and low confidence seemed to fall away, a new passion flowed through the home side, a passion to take control of the game.
Ryan Shawcross embodied this drive: he received the ball in the centre of defence and, rather than square the ball lazily to his defensive unit, he took the bull by the horns and jinked his way past no less than three West Ham players, taking himself deep into the opposition half and forced a throw in on the right wing. It was from this throw in that was the root of Stoke’s equaliser, Imbula picked up the ball in the 55th minute, played a useful one-two with Joselu and elegantly cannoned the ball into the far corner of the goal. It was visually clear that this was a massive weight off the young man’s shoulders: after having a mixed game thus far and being criticised by some in the last few games for his performances, he embraced a loving crowd with this (yet again) gloved arms.
Stoke continues to fight for a winning goal with a couple of decent opportunities falling the Potters’ way, but it was the Hammers who were denied many, many times of securing their place for European football. Three close range chances in two seconds were stopped on the line (two of those courtesy of a Shay Given double save); but it was shortly after that Kouyate squeezed the ball towards the Stoke goal and Glenn Whelan was forced into a dramatic goal line clearance, with around an eighth of the ball refusing to cross the white line. It didn’t come together for West Ham, however Stoke will have felt such unjust emotions many times this season.
Diouf, Bardsley and Charlie Adam came on in one last drive to victory and it started well. The latter of the trio tried to recreate his goal-of-the-season against Chelsea: hurling a stinging shot towards poor Darren Randolph, forcing the ‘keeper to parry hurriedly over the bar. A succession of dangerous corners followed and it was the latter of these on the 88th minute that Adam put the ball on a plate of Mame Diouf to thunder a header into a bulging West Ham net, scoring his first home goal for Stoke since the end of September, and the tragic passing of his mother; for which his sentiments were adorned on a vest stowed underneath his strip. It rounded off the game and Stoke’s Premier League campaign in winning fashion.
Today’s game symbolised exactly what was wrong with Stoke, and exactly what they needed to do to counteract it. A sloppy first half was overwritten by a second full of defensive fight, midfield quality and attacking hunger. Stoke certainly rode their luck to get the win, but you make your own luck and it took a lot of Brendan-Rodgers-like character to steady the ship and give fans something to cheer. Many players stood out today, but man-of-the-match Ryan Shawcross embodied the Potters, had his most confident half in a long time and proved exactly why he’s captain of his team.
Generous results on the final day meant that Stoke City finished ninth in the Premier League for the third consecutive season and, despite some teams out-performing and leaving some fans wanting more, other teams have been casualties of a unique campaign and Stoke have managed to keep their finished consistent. There was a good opportunity to shoot for European football but a sour start and finish to the season have ruined those hopes, but fans should be happy that their team have performed sensationally at times, was a penalty kick away from a cup final and have finished in the top half for the third year running, winning a £50m jackpot. Spent wisely and with a couple of key players staying at the club, hopes for next season could materialise into reality.
I had a headline dreamt up for today: ‘Joke City’. I’m incredibly pleased I didn’t have to use it. Well in Stoke, see you soon.
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