Fortune finally favoured Stoke City at Fratton Park on Saturday evening. Having battled adversity over the last fortnight in the form of injuries to key players and some truly rotten refereeing, the Potters found themselves benefiting from some contentious decisions before snatching all three points at the death thanks to the unlikeliest of heroes.
Neither team could honestly stake much of a claim to being worthy winners in what was, for the most part, a poor game. Stoke were in control for large periods but could not find a way through the sturdy Portsmouth defence, which kept Ricardo Fuller and Mama Sidibe well shackled for much of the game. The Potteries outfit struggled to find any kind of passing rhythm, too often eschewing the simple, possession-retaining short pass in favour of the fruitless up field punt which was invariably cut out by Portsmouth’s defenders. The Midlanders continue to miss the injured Matthew Etherington, suffering in Saturday’s game from a lack of width with Tuncay and Rory Delap on the flanks. Many Stoke fans had been campaigning for weeks for the incorporation of the Turk in a wide midfield. However, while he saw plenty of the ball, he failed to deliver anything of note, and tended too often to show positional ill-discipline in drifting infield. The jury on Sanli as a winger within Tony Pulis’ rigid 4-4-1-1 system is still out.
Elsewhere, the poor recent form of Thomas Sorensen and Andy Wilkinson continued. The Dane failed to hold on to Quincy Owusu-Abeyie’s shot and was slow to react to Frederic Piquionne’s finish from the rebound. Sorensen’s form has noticeably dipped since Pulis’ very public pursuit of Portsmouth’s goalkeepers, to the extent that the need for a new No. 1 has become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Asmir Begovic may receive his chance sooner than expected. Wilkinson, tormented by the pace of Charles N’Zogbia and Shaun Wright-Phillips during the past month, once again struggled. The Potters’ right-back can consider himself unfortunate to have been dismissed in the 72nd minute for a very dubiously awarded second yellow card but perhaps a rest will give him the chance to regain his confidence.
There were plenty of positives that the Potters can take from their display however. The club’s unbeaten start to the New Year remains very much intact, and Pulis’ men simply do not know when they are beaten at the moment. December fears surrounding dressing room morale following the Beattie/Pulis dressing room contretemps at the Emirates have been laid to rest. The battling qualities and togetherness of the side now seem more evident than ever before, as for the second consecutive game Stoke overturned a numerical disadvantage to get a result. The industry of midfield duo Glenn Whelan and Dean Whitehead was again an important component in the team’s success, while Robert Huth cut an imposing figure in central defence in his best game for the club to date. Huth again showed his knack for scoring crucial goals with the Potters’ equaliser early in the second half. Meanwhile, although Fuller was kept quiet for much of the game, his fine run and low square bass for the winner once again underlined his importance to the Potteries’ side as the one player capable of creating something from nothing in open play.
Referee Mike Dean was the fourth official in midweek when Alan Wiley’s diabolical performance raised the ire of virtually everyone in the ground. At Fratton Park, Dean picked up where Wiley left off in getting the vast majority of the big decisions wrong. Pulis has voiced his irritation at the harsh dismissal of Wilkinson, but overall the home side could more justifiably feel aggrieved. First, Piquionne’s perfectly good goal was ruled out for offside, and later Fuller, whose trickery would win the game, somehow escaped censure for an ugly incident in which the Jamaican followed through with his studs on Jamie O’Hara.
The last word however, belonged to Salif Diao. Brought on in Tuncay’s stead to shore up the midfield following the sending off, it was a surreal sight to see the Senegal star charging forward in injury time to fire into the roof of the net from close range. It was Diao’s first Premier League goal since a 20-yard effort for Liverpool against Leeds almost eight years ago. Diao has become something of a scapegoat among a section of the Stoke support. In truth, after encouraging away displays early in the season, his form has fallen away badly, and the late tackles and misplaced passes he contributed for 13 minutes of his 14 minute cameo were indicative of the midfielder’s displays this term. Every dog has his day however, and the sight of the dreadlocked hard man wheeling away in celebration, a finger to his lips to mockingly silence his detractors, is an image that will likely go down in Stoke City folklore.