Club Focus – Stoke – Team Terry proves a bridge too far for potters

In May, Tony Pulis will climb Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro as part of his latest fundraising drive for the Donna Louise Trust.

Faced with their own mountain to climb at Stamford Bridge on Sunday however, his Stoke City team ultimately faltered with no sign of the summit in sight. The Potteries club’s best FA cup run in 38 years ended with a whimper rather than a bang as the better team indisputably prevailed in the Potter’s quarter final duel with Chelsea. Pulis’ substitutions had ultimately turned the 5th round replay with Manchester City in the Potters’ favour. It was ironic therefore, that the changes made against Chelsea ultimately killed off Stoke’s attacking threat. The decision to replace Tuncay and Mama Sidibe in a double swoop on the hour was understandable, as neither player had encountered much success against Chelsea’s defenders. Deployed on the left, Tuncay’s lightweight, undisciplined display and atypically heavy first touch only served to highlight how badly Stoke are missing Matthew Etherington. Sidibe meanwhile, was comfortably dealt with as Carlo Ancelotti tasked two men to blot out his aerial threat whenever a high ball was pumped in his direction.

However, for all that Sanli flattered to deceive, his pace and eagerness had the potential to unnerve the Blues, as was evidenced by when he got in behind Ivanovic to force Hilario into a save. It is difficult to see what the Potters’ boss hoped to achieve in replacing him with the one-paced, out of form Liam Lawrence. Similarly the introduction of Dave Kitson for the big Malian failed to have the desired effect, as the ginger forward failed to assert any influence on the game, leaving Ricardo Fuller an increasingly isolated and frustrated figure. It was an unusually subdued performance from Stoke, given their spirited start to 2010. It is difficult to say if this was the result of playing such quality opposition or was a hangover from the sobering aftermath of the Aaron Ramsey affair last weekend. It cannot be denied that Chelsea outclassed Stoke, and in many ways “out-Stoked” them, harrying them into mistakes by allowing them no time on the ball. However, the eyes of the footballing world were trained on the Midlanders after Ramsey’s injury and it is possible that Pulis’ men were consequently on their best behaviour, reluctant to crash into tackles or assert themselves physically lest they find themselves in deeper trouble.

The plus points in terms of Stoke’s somewhat lifeless display was the rehabilitation of several out of form players. Thomas Sorensen had been out of sorts ever since his manager’s public pursuit of David James in January, yet his excellent goalkeeping prevented Chelsea winning by a landslide. Andy Wilkinson meanwhile, had struggled against pace in recent weeks, but was assured against the holders however, winning back possession in duels with Malouda and Anelka and making two crucial second half blocks to prevent certain goals. Elsewhere, Danny Pugh’s lazarus-style renaissance continued as he provided one of the Potters’ few sources of energy and dynamism at both ends of the field. Stoke City have one of the worst FA Cup records around. They were the only one of the teams remaining in this season’s competition to never have reached a final, and one football website, www.statto.com, currently ranks them the 88th best FA Cup team in history, behind such luminaries as Torquay, Crewe Alexandra and Accrington Stanley.

This term however, Pulis’ outfit have done their supporters proud in dumping Arsenal and Manchester City en route to their quarter final Waterloo. The Stoke manager’s Damascene conversion from treating the trophy as an irritation to talking of a trip to Wembley is perhaps the most surprising and encouraging development of the Potters’ cup campaign. However, with six points separating the Potters from the mythical 40 point barometer of Premier League security, the Midlanders must now refocus their attention from a lost stroll along Wembley way to the decidedly less glamorous environs of Turf Moor. The midweek Premier League trip to Burnley will offer perhaps a truer examination of the extent to which the Potters have exorcised the ghosts of “Ramseygate”.

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