Potters back to winning ways
Saturday 9th February
Stoke picked up their first victory of 2013 and a crucial 3 points in the race for a top ten spot in the Barclay's Premier League. The Potters were once again indebted to super sub Cameron Jerome who stepped off the bench to score what turned out to be the winning goal. It was a vital win for Tony Pulis` men, which moves them just a point behind West Bromwich Albion in 9th position and in with a great chance of achieving that much sort after top half finish, which has so far eluded Stoke.
On what was a windy and cold afternoon at The Britannia Stadium there was not much to warm either set of supporters up during what was a very dull opening to the game. Neither side created any meaningful chances until 10 minutes before half time, when Peter Crouch forced a fantastic save out of Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici. In a rare moment of quality Michael Kightly skipped past two defenders and clipped a ball to the back post where Crouch controlled the ball on his chest and volleyed towards the top corner from 12 yards out only to be denied by the Australian. Stoke piled on the pressure in the build up to half time, with 5 corners in the space of two minutes. Shawcross and Huth both went close as Reading desperately hung on for half time. Stoke skipper Shawcross produced another good save from Federici after flicking the ball towards goal with his left foot and from the following corner Huth finally beat the inform stopper with a strike from 12 yards out only for former Stoke full back Stephen Kelly to deflect the ball wide.
The sides went in level at Half Time with Brian McDermott definitely the happier of the two managers. The second period started much the same as the first with Stoke struggling to break through the stubborn visitors defence. The Stoke faithful becoming restless Pulis played his trump card, just after the hour mark with Jerome and Kenwyne Jones replacing the disappointing Kightly and Crouch.
Immediately Stoke looked a different proposition, Reading were facing a much different challenge and struggled to cope with the pace and power Jones and Jerome provide. With the pressure building Jonathan Walters came agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock, after controlling a long ball he seemed poised with the goal gaping, but the ball was nipped off his toe at the last second. The resulting corner however did ease the tension that was building around the ground. Whelan curled in a deep corner and Huth lost his man, and met the cross with a bullet header which went in off the crossbar.
The relief was clear to see and Stoke began to play with a lot more freedom and confidence. The result never looked in doubt with Reading barely mustering an attempt on goal. When the second goal arrived 14 minutes after the opener everyone would have been forgiven for thinking the game was over. The goal came when Mariappa failed to deal with a Shawcross long ball, his header fell for Jerome who controlled the ball on his thigh and in one movement turned and drilled an unstoppable volley into the far corner of the net giving Federici no chance. It was a fantastic goal from the former Birmingham man who is fast becoming a fans favourite at The Britannia.
Just as all Potters fans relaxed thinking a crucial 3 points were safely tucked in the bag, Stoke do what Stoke do best, make things extremely difficult for themselves. I struggle to remember a game where potters fans have been able to enjoy the final few minutes of a game without watching their heroes clinging onto a lead or a point. Mariappa grabbed the goal for Reading with a near post header from an Ian Harte corner, after losing his marker. Suddenly Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic found himself picking the ball out of his net despite barely having a save to make throughout the whole game. With 7 minutes remaining the game was set up for a grandstand finish.
Reading pumped balls forward but the Stoke defence were comfortable until in injury time they could well have been given a penalty for a foul by Ryan Shotton. The young fullback made a rash challenge on Premier League player of the month Adam Le Fondre but referee Michael Oliver waved away the Royals protests. The decision left Reading manager Brian McDermott fuming and he may well have a point but the Potters were definitely the better side and anything other than a home win would have been an injustice.
The 3 points are very important for a Stoke side that have been stuttering of late, however there are still areas of concern for The Potters. Peter Crouch has not been the same player since his facial injury and it has left many supporters astonished that he has managed to win his place back in the side ahead of Kenwyne Jones who has been in such good form. Cameron Jerome must also be wondering what he has to do to warrant a starting place, however I fear his impact against the Royals will only increase Tony Pulis` belief that he is best used as an impact substitute. I have heard many supporters saying Jerome has been ineffective when he has rarely been given a starting position but when that start is away at Manchester City it is very hard to show his true qualities.
A positive victory over, for me, the worst side to visit The Britannia this season should not be used to paper over these cracks. Stoke look far more dangerous with Jones and Jerome on the pitch and many supporters will be hoping this combination will be used from the start in upcoming fixtures.