Writer: Tom Mckeon
Date:Thursday August 4 2011
4th August 2011
A last-gasp Ljubo Miličević own goal forced by Stoke's emergency striker Ryan Shotton saw the Potters beat Hajduk Split in their own backyard and ensure a safe passage into the Play-Off stage of the Europa League.
It was just reward for a performance which saw Asmir Begovic remain relatively untested as the Potters rallied throughout and defended stoutly against a side who lacked any cutting edge.
New signing Jonathan Woodgate was handed his first start in a City shirt as Andy Wilkinson failed a fitness test, and the Potters were forced to take on the Croatians without the experience of the injured Rory Delap as Dean Whitehead took his place in the centre of midfield alongside Glenn Whelan.
The crescendo of noise created by the Hajduk fans clearly spurred their team on in the early exchanges as their skipper Andric went dangerously close with a header from 12 yards out as the Croatians searched for an early-goal which would level the tie.
Hajduk were keen on proving they weren`t to be out-muscled by the Potters, with Kenwyne Jones having claims for a penalty turned down as Milicevic seemingly grappled the striker to the floor.
A wave of Stoke throw-ins then arrived with Robert Huth providing the ammunition, the German`s long, looping throw caused problems for the Hajduk defence but the Potters were ruing the emission of Rory Delap.
The 15th minute saw Stoke`s first genuine opportunity, a pinpoint pass from Dean Whitehead found Jon Walters through on goal, the striker attempted a cheeky chip as the keeper charged out of the goal, but failed to properly connect as Miličević charged down the effort.
The home crowd`s passionate enthusiasm was now turning into sheer frustration as their team tried to force the issue, but to no avail. A swift counter attack by the Croatian side ended in Malorca curling a left-foot pearler just wide of Begovic`s goal and Jonathan Woodgate had to remain alert when the winger threatened to breach Stoke`s defence down the right-hand side.
Hajduk manager Krasimir Balakov questioned Stoke`s style of play after the first leg, but a succession of fouls and poorly- timed challenges were committed by his team tonight, including a dangerous, out of control tackle on Jermaine Pennant by Andric and a challenge which left Jon Walters needing treatment on the sidelines.
Stoke continued to frustrate Split throughout the first half, maintaining possession with ease. Kenwyne Jones caused the Hadjuk defence plenty of problems, wriggling past his marker but failing to make anything of a half-chance as Stoke searched for the goal which would put the tie to bed.
As the break arrived, the Potters were no doubt the happier side, carrying out their game-plan in not only stopping the Croatian side from scoring, but threatening themselves.
However, the Hajduk coach clearly sent his side out pumped-up for the second half and they responded, the highly-rated Vukusic cutting in and dragging a shot wide of the post.
The Potters were forced to soak up a lot of pressure and it wasn`t long before Huth clattered into his opponent in a committed but fair challenge which would sum up Stoke`s gritty display.
A brief period of respite saw Republic of Ireland midfielder Glenn Whelan force the keeper Subasisc into a save from distance.
Stoke were growing progressively tired as the half wore on but, lead by the fantastic Woodgate and Robert Huth, they defended stoutly and withstood any attack which the Croatians mustered.
Kenwyne Jones continued to physically torment the Hajduk defence as the striker brilliantly held up the ball and forced a throw-in before moments later being substituted for Salif Diao in a tactical move by Tony Pulis.
Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington were both rather leggy in the first leg and ran their socks off again tonight but both were tiring and the former was replaced by Danny Pugh in the closing stages as City looked to close out the tie.
Jon Walters was moving gingerly and was replaced by defender Ryan Shotton who came on as an emergency lone-striker, some neat touches and clever runs were made by the 22-year-old, using his power in winning a corner for the Potters and relieving the pressure.
With time running out the Stoke fans were growing ever nervous but there was one last piece of play which was to prove all so decisive.
A cross from Dean Whitehead saw Hajduk Split defender Ljubo Miličević steer the ball into his own net under pressure from make-shift striker Ryan Shotton, sending the travelling Stokies absolutely bonkers and ensuring the Britannia will play host to at least one more Stoke City European encounter.
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Date:Thursday August 4 2011
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