It is two months ago now that Stoke travelled to Sunderland, hoping for an upturn in form after poor results against Crystal Palace and Chelsea had threatened to derail their season. An unlucky goal conceded allowed Adam Johnson and Sunderland to take the lead and secure the three points that night, and some Stoke supporters feared a tough relegation battle. Three days later and these fears were not dis-swayed after the ‘pizzagate’ incident resulted in cries of celebration amongst Tony Scholes and co for the arrival of their late-night munchies and cries of anguish from supporters outside hoping for news of a marquee signing who would guarantee the club’s survival. This was only two months ago. In the small amount of time since, Stoke have become one of the form teams in the Premier League, currently sitting in 5th in the Form Table. Wins against Manchester United and Arsenal boosted morale against a backdrop of mediocre results against Swansea and Norwich, whilst their only defeat during this period has been against Manchester City, notorious for only being beaten once at home this season, in the league. This upturn in performances and results reached a new height as Stoke secured their first away win since August at Villa Park. They were made to do it the hard way after conceding an early goal, with Geoff Cameron and Ryan Shawcross both questionable in their defensive duties, Cameron not strong in enough to prevent Fabian Delph crossing the ball into the box, whilst Shawcross, at one point so close to Christian Benteke, allowed him to drift into space and score with ease. It was a goal gifted to Aston Villa and it gave them extra impotence in their attacks during the first 15 minutes of the match.
Whilst it has been clear in this run of form, it can also be said that for the majority of the season, one of the hallmarks of this Stoke City team is that they do not know when they are ‘beaten’. Under Tony Pulis, it would have taken a huge leap of faith to suggest Stoke would have come back from a goal down to take all three points. With the current side, you suspect that they will get back into the game, if not win it. So when Peter Odemwingie ran onto a Peter Crouch flick-on, slotting home coolly to level the score, you knew Stoke could go on to win the game. And so they did, with a goal oozing class in different attacking quarters of the pitch. A long pass from Ryan Shawcross landed on the boot of Marko Arnautovic who backheeled the ball to an onrushing Erik Pieters, who holding off an Aston Villa challenge found Peter Crouch in acres of space who finished the move off with great aplomb. A year ago, the ball to Arnautovic would’ve been classed as a long ball rather than a long pass, whilst in that same time a winger would not have been flicking a ball onto an onrushing full-back, more conspiring with them to see which one will send a cross in from deep.
The biggest improvement though was there for all to see with Stoke’s third goal, a move that took 15 passes to complete with a forward-minded Steven Nzonzi finishing across Brad Guzan.. Patience in play was the key to the move, and again something that Tony Pulis would not have condoned in his players, preferring to play more direct. Villa threatened to get back into the game during the second half, but Stoke held firm and the most worrying moment was when Christian Benteke fell to the ground too easily and made frustrated claims for a penalty, only receiving a yellow card for his troubles. The fourth goal for Stoke came in the last minutes of the game and put the gloss on a fine performance with Geoff Cameron bursting through the middle of the field, showing the pace and power that make some consider him a better option in midfield than at right-back, to latch onto a Marko Arnautovic pass in the box to slot home. As away performances go, it was 75 minutes of perfection. The next step is to get to 90 minutes.
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