Whitehead winner earns crucial win
Dean Whitehead`s scrambled goal with just 5 minutes to go gave Stoke a precious 3-2 win over Birmingham. A topsy turvy game saw the Blues fight back from 2-0 down after Robert Huth and Ricardo Fuller looked to have secured the points. But Whitehead forced a Matthew Etherington cross over the line to stop the rot of 4 consecutive league defeats.
With captain Ryan Shawcross suspended after his sending off at Sunderland, Tony Pulis chose Danny Higginbotham over Andy Wilkinson and he partnered Abdoulaye Faye at centre back. Robert Huth took the captaincy, while Ricardo Fuller, Jermaine Pennant and Rory Delap returned to the first team in place of Marc Wilson, Tuncay and Jon Walters.
After a cagey start from both sides, which only saw Sebastian Larsson`s dipping volley as the only attempt on goal, Stoke livened up and with the crowd raising their voices they attacked Ben Foster`s goal with a barrage of corners and Rory Delap throws. Kenwyne Jones was an equal match for the Birmingham defenders Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, and he was causing all kinds of problems. Although Matthew Etherington wasn`t enjoying his best game, on the other side Jermaine Pennant was flourishing against his former club, and it seemed to be only a matter of time before Stoke would score.
Jones went close with a couple of headers and Fuller`s shot following a neat move that involved Higginbotham and Jones was well charged down by the desperate Blues defence. All the traffic was one way but Begovic was called into action to scupper a rare Birmingham attack, as Craig Gardner carried the ball 40 yards before shooting well to the Bosnian`s left to force a comfortable save.
In midfield both Dean Whitehead and Rory Delap enjoyed good games as they swept up any loose balls, and Whitehead steamed through the Birmingham defence but just before he was about to pull the trigger Johnson got back with a well timed tackle.
But as the dull half drew to a close Stoke took a deserved lead. The best piece of football of the half eventually lead to Huth grabbing his second of the season. Collins played a accurate chip forwards to Whitehead inside the box and he laid off a first time ball for Fuller, their was no question as to what the Jamaican was going to do. Luckily his shot was deflected into the path of Huth who thumped the ball under Foster and into the net. It was a sudden relief amongst the nervous crowd and the players responded as they went for the jugular with a minute to go before half time.
A corner from Etherington fell to Delap at the back post and his crisp shot forced a reaction save from the former Stoke goalkeeper. Huth was then unlucky not to have his second moments later as a second Etherington corner gave him the chance 4 yards out. The German connected well but it was blocked on the goal line by Fuller.
After half time things cooled down again but Birmingham still posed no threat going forward. Stoke made all the running going forward and Huth had yet another chance to double the lead as he climbed highest to meet a Pennant free-kick, but his effort sailed over the bar. Around the hour mark Birmingham became more adventurous and Begovic was forced into a couple of fine saves to keep the score at just 1-0. Cameron Jerome capitalised on some poor defending from Higginbotham and burst through with just Begovic to beat, but the young keeper dived down low to make a smart save. Then the new number one make a fantastic stop to turn a bullet header from Roger Johnson over the bar and it looked just a matter of time before Birmingham would equalise.
Higginbotham diverted a cross onto the post and some last ditch defending kept the Blues out. And then moments later another sublime individual goal, the second in two games at the Britannia, saw Stoke double their lead. This time it was Fuller who, after collecting a long clearance, charged down the right hand side leaving Ridgewell for dead. After cutting inside two further players onto his left foot he curled a wonderful precise finish to lift the roof on the stadium. That was Ric`s 100th goal in British football and surely one of his best.
The second goal did little to dishearten Birmingham as they charged forward and score two goals in the space of 5 minutes. Some more poor defending from Higginbotham saw the ball reach sub Keith Fahey on the edge of the box, after controlling the ball on his chest he superbly lashed the ball into the bottom corner from 18 yards. Then minutes later a dream of a cross from Stephen Carr saw Jerome out jump Faye and he flicked the ball past the helpless Begovic.
There looked like only one team winning and it would have been a disaster had Birmingham taken full advantage of a weak and tired Stoke. Begovic was having his best game as a Stoke player though after Gardner dispossessed Danny Collins and raced at Faye and Higginbotham. With no pressure on the ball he was free to unleash his shot, which Begovic miraculously saved again.
Stoke were holding on but they did muster one last attack on Fosters goal. Etherington made his biggest contribution to date as he surged down the left, his low cross couldn`t find Fuller, but unfortunately for Johnson the ball squirmed through his legs for Whitehead, waiting behind him, to force over the line. That was Dean`s first Premier League goal for the Potters and it sent euphoria around the stadium, similar to the game against Aston Villa back in September. With this win Stoke climb too 15th but they have built a gap back to the relegation zone and sit just 2 points of 8th placed Bolton. Next up is another home match against a Liverpool side finally coming into some form.
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