Mama Sidibe, Ricardo Fuller, Rory Delap and Tony Pulis. Four men who were pivotal to Stoke’s 2007/08 promotion to the Premier League, their first such dalliance with football’s elite in almost a quarter of a century. This quartet has come in for criticism recently however as the Potters have endured a Jekyll and Hyde campaign this term. At times this disapproval has been warranted, but on Sunday these old hands bounced back to silence their detractors in considerable style.
The Potters’ 3-1 FA Cup Fourth Round upset of Arsenal was their best performance of the season to date. Pulis has employed some baffling team selections and tactics, having seemingly bought into the notion of second season syndrome. Yet his approach to the tie with Wenger’s men was flawless. Knowing that Arsenal have often struggled when confronted with physical, direct teams, Pulis ensured that the Midlanders played to their strengths by persisting with the out of form Sidibe and resting the smaller Tuncay. However, the Stoke manager also adopted a more positive stance than many were expecting, selecting the energetic Glenn Whelan in central midfield in place of the screening, deep lying Salif Diao. The consequent mix of the familiar route one game with a high tempo, powerful attacking strategy in which Matthew Etherington and Ricardo Fuller exploited space down the channels ultimately destroyed a frangible Arsenal side shorn of many of their star performers.
Stoke fans had been growing increasingly frustrated with the manager’s inistence on favouring an increasingly fatigued-looking Rory Delap on the right flank over the superior attacking instincts of Liam Lawrence. However, Delap more than justified his selection. The Gunners illustrated their failure to learn anything from their last visit to the Potteries by once again falling prey to Delap’s exocet of a throw, Lukasz Fabianski’s hesitation allowing Fuller to give Stoke the lead inside 70 seconds. Delap’s performance was about far more than just the touchline bombardment however. His experience and anticipation were vital to Stoke’s improved ball retention and he continually won his duel with Armand Traore, getting to the ball first every time and winning valuable throw ins and free kicks. The lumbering displays of Mamdy Sidibe since returning from a serious cruciate ligament injury have made the acquisition of a target man a priority for Pulis during this transfer window. The injury has robbed the Malian of much of his aerial ability. Even before Sidibe’s prolonged absence, the Potters’ boss had spent the better part of £10m in searching for an upgrade on the former Gillingham forward. If Sidibe could consistently produce the Man of the Match performance he delivered in the fourth round however, he could save his manager a lot of money. It was a textbook target man’s display.
The Malian’s strength created acres of space for the pacey Etherington and Fuller by dragging Sol Campbell out of position. On more than one occasion he came to the team’s rescue by crashing into challenges and winning the ball back for his team and it was his fine run and inch-perfect delivery which allowed Fuller to head Stoke’s second. Ricardo Fuller’s critics accuse him of being lazy, disinterested and overweight but the Jamaican’s detractors were forced to eat their words as his goals dumped one of the marquee names of English football out of the cup. It is true that Fuller has not been firing on all cylinders so far this season, but the Potters’ self-proclaimed “lion” remains Stoke’s talisman. His capacity to terrorise the most illustrious of defences is well-documented with his pace and trickery, but his old-fashioned centre forward play is much underrated. The timing of the ex-Preston striker’s runs on Sunday for his brace of goals was exceptional – arriving late to power in a header for his first before expertly peeling away around the back of Campbell to nod in his second with just 12 minutes remaining.
The Potteries club’s victory over one of the game’s giants comes at a fine time for Tony Pulis, raising the club’s profile and strengthening his hand in the transfer market in aiming to attract potential targets to the Britannia Stadium this January. It is one of football’s wistful ironies that the heroic performances of the likes of Sidibe and Delap may ultimately hasten the arrival of their replacements. The Stoke boss seems to have seen the light this season where the FA Cup is concerned. Whereas previously he has fielded weakened teams while keeping the focus firmly on the Midlanders’ league form, he has selected virtually a full strength side in every round so far of this year’s competition. Potters fans will be hoping that this road to Damascus-style change of heart puts Stoke City on the road to Wembley.