Club Focus – Stoke City – Potters daring to dream of FA Cup glory

In July 2009, Staffordshire locals stumbled upon a veritable treasure trove of 1300-year-old Anglo-Saxon gold. The Staffordshire Hoard is currently drawing huge crowds to Stoke-On-Trent’s City Museum, where its exhibition recently prompted a visit from the Prince of Wales. However, an increasing number of romantics are starting to believe that a rather larger shiny trinket could soon be on display in the Potteries, after Stoke City fired themselves into the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 38 years.

A glance at the starting line ups prior to the Potters’ fifth round replay with Manchester City did not augur well for the home side. Stoke’s defence was badly depleted as a result of suspensions to Abdoulaye Faye and Andy Wilkinson and a back injury to Danny Higginbotham. Consequently, Dean Whitehead – the heartbeat of the Midlanders’ midfield in recent weeks – was forced into an unfamiliar right-back role. Moreover, the Manchester City starting XI appeared significantly more menacing than the team fortunate to escape the Britannia Stadium with a point eight days earlier, as Roberto Mancini welcomed back the talents of Stephen Ireland, Vincent Kompany and Craig Bellamy.

Indeed, it was the Mancunians who made much the better start, and with more clinical finishing may have been out of sight within the first 20 minutes, with Bellamy exploiting Whitehead’s initial discomfort at full-back, yet failing to find a way beyond the much improved Thomas Sorensen. Stoke had looked a tired team early on, but showed the trademark desire which has characterised Tony Pulis’ reign, battling their way back into contention.

The biggest development from the tie from a Stoke perspective was the astonishing return of outcast Dave Kitson. The ginger striker came off the bench and in from the cold to slam home the opening goal of the evening with some aplomb. Kitson’s two minute cameo at Fratton Park at the weekend was his first appearance in a Stoke shirt since September. A turbulent loan spell at Middlesbrough seemed to indicate that there was no future at the Britannia Stadium for the Potters’ former record signing. However, the player who replaced Mama Sidibe to break the deadlock on Wednesday looked completely transformed from the forlorn figure Kitson had cut for most of his time in the Potteries. Often rebuked for a perceived lack of effort, Kitson chased and harried for every ball, tracking back deep into his own half to win back possession and challenging for everything in the air, in addition to engaging in some clever link play with his fellow attackers. There has always been a suspicion that Kitson might flourish in a side which played less of a long ball game, and had more skilful support around him. So it proved on 79 minutes, when a quick-fire one-two with the artful Tuncay allowed the flame-haired hitman to find the space to fire past Shay Given.

Tony Pulis has received much criticism during his lengthy tenure on the Stoke City hotseat for making puzzling tactical decisions and substitutions. However, the progress of the Potteries outfit into the last eight owes much to three inspired changes effected by the Welshman. The introduction of Kitson produced the opening goal. Salif Diao’s departure allowed the far more mobile Rory Delap to move into his preferred central midfield role, while Diao’s replacement, Tuncay, was unleashed in a wide role to comprehensively revitalise the Potter’s attacking play. The exit of the flagging Liam Lawrence led to a rare glimpse of Danny Pugh – involved for only the fifth time this season – and Pugh’s no-nonsense approach on the left of midfield improved the team’s ability to win back and retain possession.

After the Premier League clash between the two teams the previous week was marred by some scandalous officiating, justice appeared to be belatedly served as Emmanuel Adebayor’s violent conduct was punished with an expulsion which had evaded Patrick Vieira the previous week. It was fitting that it should be Ryan Shawcross, so cruelly denied a legitimate winner last week, be the one to pop up with virtually a carbon copy in extra time to put Stoke ahead.

The Potters have been handed the worst possible quarter-final draw in the form of a trip to Stamford Bridge. While victory seems unlikely, Tony Pulis will know that Chelsea, on the right day, can be vulnerable. The Welshman will be hoping that Carlo Ancelotti is given cause to wistfully state, as Mancini did in the pre-match press conference, that “there are no teams in Serie A like Stoke.”. Dreams of Wembley will soar in the Potteries for nine more days at least.

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