For the first time ever in a season, Stoke-On-Trent will play host to European club football after Christmas. Stoke City, the current top team in the city, secured the point they required at home to Dynamo Kiev last night to qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League.
A towering header from Jermaine Pennant’s right wing cross gave Jones his sixth goal of the season, four of which have come in Stoke’s Europa League campaign. The Trinidadian has played a far more prominent role in that competition than in the Premier League. Specifically, while Jones has contributed significantly to Stoke’s unbeaten run on the European stage – which now spans nine games beginning with a 1-0 home win over Hajduk Spilt in July – his chances to reproduce these efforts domestically have been limited this season due to Peter Crouch’s arrival and the excellent form of Jonathan Walters.
Nevertheless, as shown by the type of headed goal against Kiev that has become Jones’ trademark, he remains an integral member of Stoke’s squad and a genuine goal threat. Indeed, Kiev themselves continued to threaten Stoke’s goal right up until the final whistle, forcing Asmir Begovic into a full length dive to pull off a wonderful finger tip save from Andriy Yarmolenko’s 20 yard shot in injury time. The 1-1 final result was enough to see Stoke through to the next round.
Begovic, like Jones, appears consigned to being a substitute for Stoke’s Premier League games, after surrendering his position to Thomas Sorenson following a much-maligned performance in the club’s 5-0 defeat against Bolton last month. On this night however, the pair carried out the duties that they are paid for, and in doing so issued a timely reminder of their talents to Tony Pulis ahead of the Potters’ busy festive schedule of fixtures.
Given that they have already secured their place in the last 32 of the Europa League, Stoke’s management and playing staff can now devote their complete and uninterrupted focus to taking as many points as possible from their upcoming run of Premier League games throughout December. This starts with a trip to Merseyside to face Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday afternoon, a game for which Pulis will be determined to prepare his players for a performance free from any potential adverse effects of their admirable Europa League efforts. It is well documented that Stoke have struggled to produce a result on returning to Premier League duty from the European stage this season and Pulis will want to rectify this.
While it will be interesting to see how Stoke backs up on Sunday, one thing already known is that all those affiliated with the club will have rightly taken a great deal of enjoyment from their European exploits in recent months. This run represents an exceptional achievement, and there is the distinct possibility that it will be built upon against Besiktas in a fortnight and then into the new year.
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