Club Focus – Stoke – Cup of promise for Stoke’s fringe players

A 1-1 draw against lower league opposition might not seem like the best afternoon’s work, but there was plenty for Stoke City to smile about as a number of squad players took the chance to stake their claim in this cup tie. Tony Pulis made seven changes to the team that lost at Old Trafford in midweek, and saw his team absolutely dominate a Cardiff team who were also missing key players. It was only the wastefulness of the Potters’ forwards that mean that progress to the fourth round remains unconfirmed.

Stoke got off to a slow start, as some sloppy defending gifted the Bluebirds an early lead. After that eighth minute calamity however, the back four were impressively resolute. Regular central defensive duo Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross were joined by Danny Higginbotham, who came in for Danny Collins, while 22-year-old Ryan Shotton finally made his home debut. Higginbotham was partly culpable for Cardiff’s goal, failing to drop in and cover for Robert Huth, who had pushed upfield, giving Chopra time and space to fire Cardiff ahead. However, the left back was otherwise an important part of a strong rearguard action. Moreover, his atypical forays added an extra dimension to Stoke’s attacking play, as he delivered some telling crosses on the overlap. With Collins badly out of form, Higginbotham’s display will have done his first team credentials a power of good. At right back, Shotton had little to do, but acquitted him well when called on. His confidence, commitment and strength in the challenge mirrored that of current first choice Andy Wilkinson, while his comfort on the ball has surely cemented him as a more viable alternative at full back than shunting Robert Huth out wide.

The all-Irish central midfield duo of Glenn Whelan and Marc Wilson had seemed, on paper, a touch lightweight yet the influence of both grew as the game progressed. Whelan, whose inconsistency has always prevented him from earning a regular starting place at the club, endured a fairly miserable first half but was excellent after the break, playing a number of clever passes into gaps in the channels behind the Cardiff defence. Wilson meanwhile – currently in the best form of his Stoke career – controlled the game, making himself the space and time to show off his range of passing. Most of the Staffordshire side’s attacks went through the former Portsmouth captain, who appears to have a bright future in the Potteries. He appears to possess the quality on the ball that Pulis teams have long been missing in the engine room.

A draw was the last result that either Stoke or Cardiff wanted, requiring both to squeeze yet another game into already congested fixture lists. However, with a winnable fourth round tie against either Doncaster or Wolves awaiting them, the potential rewards are rich indeed – at the very least, it will give Stoke’s fringe players another chance to impress.

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