The performance mattered more than the result for Stoke City as they headed into Saturday’s home game against in-form Everton. Still reeling from the previous weekend’s seven-goal drubbing at Chelsea, with more rumours of dressing room unrest trailing in their wake, it was important for Tony Pulis’ team to rediscover their fighting spirit and prevent their season from imploding at the death. This they achieved with an encouraging display in the goalless draw at the Britannia Stadium, which threw up a few pleasant surprises along the way.
The return of target man Mama Sidibe seemed to suggest a back to basics approach was on the agenda, and that Stoke would be reverting to their trademark direct brand of football. Encouragingly however, Stoke opted to mix the long balls with some tidy possession football as they matched their more feted opponents. Sidibe was central to this display. The much-maligned Malian returned from injury to reclaim a starting berth from Dave Kitson, whose theatrical dissent at being substituted at Stamford Bridge looks to have sealed his exit from the Potteries this summer. Sidibe has become the scapegoat for a section of the Stoke support, largely as a result of his dismal goal scoring record. In truth, the former Gillingham front man probably does not quite possess the quality to be a regular Premier League starter. He made a strong impression against the Toffees, however. Not only did he win countless flick ons for his strike partner, as he can usually be relied on to do, he showed a surprising deftness of touch and clever vision, at one point playing a delightful through ball for Ricardo Fuller and on another playing Matthew Etherington in during a well-crafted Stoke move which culminated in a jaw-dropping miss from Rory Delap. Sidibe shielded the ball well and also played an important defensive role, dropping back and using his strength to win the ball back and kick start counter attacks. It was possibly the Malian’s best game in a Stoke shirt and he thoroughly deserved the ovation he received when he was withdrawn, exhausted, in the game’s closing moments.
Unfortunately his performance has not reflected Sidibe’s season, in which he has struggled for form and fitness and failed to make the impact of previous seasons. He is not the long term solution to the target man role which is so pivotal to Pulis’ 4-4-1-1 system. One suspects that the Welshman himself realises this, having spent the better part of £10 million in attempting to replace him since promotion in 2008. However, the Sidibe/Fuller partnership arguably remains Stoke’s most effective. For all of the qualities possessed by the club’s other forwards – the goal threat of James Beattie, the intelligent hold-up play of Dave Kitson and Tuncay’s bag of tricks – none are as vital to the Potters as Fuller, and nobody creates the space for the mercurial Jamaican to flourish as well as Sidibe does. The tall African has shown that he still has a contribution to make, even if it is likely to be in a more reduced capacity next season.
The game’s other major plus point from a Stoke perspective was the selection of what many feel to be their strongest defence. Abdoulaye Faye’s injury and Danny Collins’ horror show at Chelsea led to the restoration of Andy Wilkinson and Ryan Shawcross to the starting line up. Pulis was rewarded with a reassuring clean sheet following last week’s calamities. Shawcross was particularly impressive, taking the captain’s armband from Faye and leading by example with a confident showing which suggested his game has not been unduly affected by the Aaron Ramsey affair. Robert Huth was equally resolute as Shawcross’ central defensive partner, looking infinitely more comfortable in that role than he does when deployed at right-back. The formidable Anglo-German pairing is likely to be the Potters’ long-term partnership in the heart of defence, given Faye’s injury-plagued, error-strewn campaign.
In a week where Tony Pulis publicly called into question the “precious” mindset of certain members of his squad, it was refreshing to witness Andy Wilkinson’s exemplary attitude. The academy-produced right-back could perhaps consider himself unlucky to lose his place following a harsh dismissal at Portsmouth in February, but has soldiered on without a murmur of complaint to ably deputise whenever called upon. Saturday was no exception. Although his destiny seems to lie in providing quality cover for the right back slot, Wilkinson remains the closest to a genuine full-back that the Potters possess.
Pulis’ men successfully restored a degree of pride in the shirt on Saturday and, more importantly, unity on the field. The fighting in the dressing room does not seem to have diminished the fighting spirit on the pitch.