S Armstrong 41'
|It has long been a measure of football quality to ask "How would they fare in an evening game at Stoke?" Tonight we should learn a lot about Russell Martin's Saints and whether Saturday's resurgence against Leeds was a sea change or a happy glitch in our season.
Probably best prepared for this match is Will Smallbone who spent last season on loan with The Potters making 43 appearances and scoring 3 times. He was a big fan favourite and Stoke would gladly have kept him if they could but that recent experience of England's 2nd tier was too valuable for Saints to let go. Russ also recruited Manning and THB who'd played there last season and Bree, AA and Che all cut their teeth in this league.
Stoke sit 3 points and 6 places back from us with 3 wins and a draw from their first 9 games. They won their first 3 home games but have lost to Preston and Hull since then. Their away points came from a draw at Huddersfield and Saturday's excellent win at Bristol City after trailing 2-0 early on.
They have a multi-national squad with international caps and continue to make good use of the loan market. Keeper Travers (Bournemouth). defender Hoever (Wolves) and forward Haksabanovic (Celtic) have been regular starters. Jamaican striker Tyrese Campbell is out injured so a frontline of Macedonian Haksabanovic, Portuguese Vidigal and Brazilian Wesley may well face us.
Saints need to back up a much-improved performance on Saturday with solidity tonight. Our September lapse leaves us 9 points adrift of 2nd placed Ipswich and 3 (effectively 4 given our crap goal difference) behind Cardiff in 6th. We need to start closing that void and need to be bang at it to get the points this evening.
|Seems like Stoke will be missing a few tonight. On Saturday Lynden Gooch and Michael Rose both went off and are doubtful. Seems Vidigal, Mmaee and former Skate then Blade Enda Stevens also join Tyrese Campbell in the stands. Wouter Burger may return in midfield.
Saints came through their match with Leeds unscathed: not something you could say in the days of Bremner, Giles and Hunter. It is just Stephens, Larios and the mysterious Ross Stewart missing.
Wesley was on their bench which meant young Lowe was making his first start up front. Early on they lined up 4-4-2 with Leris alongside Lowe and Haksabanovic at the front of a midfield diamond with Pearson staying deep and Laurent and Johnson giving width. Both fullbacks had licence to bomb on although it was mostly Hoever on the right who did that.
RM surprised us all by sending out the same starting XI as faced Leeds. That meant Sully on the left, Captain AA down the right and Will and Charly taking turns to play up front.
The pundits in the Sky studio were Jobi McAnuff and ROI Asst Manager Keith Andrews. Both were effusive in their praise for our win on Saturday and felt Saints would have too much for the injury-ravaged Potters. They identified Hoever (a wingback by trade) as a weak link with Sully facing him. They were not wrong.
Daniel Mann was on the microphone with Andy Hinchcliffe riding shotgun. With 5 other games tonight and 6 on Wednesday the frantic timetable of this league is unremitting.
Stuart Armstrong scores Saints' goal from a free kick that JWP would have been proud of
|Saints were in their lovely dark kit and it was Stoke disguised as deckchairs. Tonight's Ref James Bell got the game started with Stoke kicking off. The early exchanges were indicative of what would follow with neither side able to retain the ball for long. The first bit of football came from AA who carried the ball forward purposely before losing it.
A misplaced kick by Baz gave Stoke the ball and they won a corner off Will. As the ball came over it was "Land of the Giants" in our box with Baz pinned on his line but Bedders headed it out and the next corner was safely cleared. Stoke's tails were up and they fed Leris but Manners blocked it for another corner. This one came in from the left and gave Pearson a shooting chance but it went way high.
Having withstood a few minutes of concerted pressure Saints got the ball to Sully who sped past and drilled a cross that AA could not reach. Shame. Ball retention continued to be lousy and on 10m Johnson found Haksabanovic who took a shot from distance which flew well wide.
Saints had a good turnout for the game and they were singing "When I was just a little boy" etc., etc. whilst the Stoke faithful were booing every touch by Smallbone who'd been here last season and who they wanted to sign. Funny lot, football supporters.
On 13m Sully went past Hoever again but was brought down. Saints then enjoyed a spell of possession culminating with the ball pin-balling around in their box but no clear chance of falling to any of ours. It gave them a fright though…
Hoever was keen to get away from Sully and put over a couple of decent crosses but our defence was able to clear them both. Sully then got past him and provided another cross which this time was turned out for a corner on the right which was easily claimed by Travers.
Stoke then enjoyed more pressure forcing KWP to concede 2 quick corners. From the latter, a clover flick by Haksabanovic gave Laurent a shooting chance. His first effort was blocked but he latched onto the rebound and set it just past the post.
It had been poor fare till on 23m Saints produced a lovely, crisp passing move that carved through the home defence. The final ball from Charly found Sully but his horrible shot was way too high. Stung into action, Stoke went down their right and Leris picked out young Lowe (a strapping big lad TBF) but he headed right into Baz's gloves.
Our next attack faltered when AA ran offside and they went right up our end where Johnson set up Haksabanovic but his shot was met with a timely block from Smallbone. Remember me bitching about Saints never blocking shots? They have improved plenty since then.
Ball retention continued to be poor till about a half hour in but gradually we began to improve and from that point the "possession gap" began to widen. Stoke were raising their foul count and it was only a matter of time before the Ref began waving cards about.
On 34m AA forced a corner off Wilmot and, in true Saints style, we took it short, gave it away and they launched an attack. This has often ended with Baz retrieving the ball from his net but we are not so gullible these days. Smallbone's tracking back then winning the ball was exemplary and must have pissed off the Stoke Boo Boys.
It continued to be end to end but neither keeper had been put outside his comfort zone and we'd not even forced Travers to make a save. Another promising move collapsed when AA overhit a pass to KWP's overlapping run but the ball reached the touchline before our #2.
On 39m Stu took the ball in-field and went on a run. He was tracked by their captain, Laurent who had a big handful of his shorts. The Ref watched and when Stu was nice and central blew for the foul. Championship players are well aware that Ryan Manning likes a pot from this range and, indeed, he has had a few since JWP went to work for the Porn Barons. He stood ready to curl one with his left peg,
No one took much notice of Stu who'd not moved from where he was fouled. He stood to Manners' left but on the whistle, it was the Scotsman's right foot that sent the ball over the wall. Travers made a great attempt to keep it out but it squeezed between his glove and the crossbar. Saints were 0-1 up and Stu ran to the dugout to celebrate with Martin and the coaches.
On 44m Sully was again fouled by Hoever and the Ref did show him a yellow card. The Ref had clearly seen enough as Pearson was also booked a minute later for a foul on Alcaraz. Think this must be the first game this season when only one added minute was played. However, the very last kick of the half was their best chance of scoring. Leris found the overlapping Tchamadeu who shot from a tight angle, beat Baz but also our back post. Half time and we were still leading.
Neither manager tweaked their line-ups for the restart but it was Saints quickest out of the blocks. Charly played a super ball down the right where AA collected. There was no one in the box when he looked up but Stu was busting a gut to get there. The captain delivered a perfect cross right onto his head. In either corner he'd have bagged a brace but he tried to head it down and, as Travers watched on, the ball hit McNally's outstretched leg and bounced over his head - and crossbar. The relieved keeper then leapt up to claim the corner kick.
Stoke in general and Leris in particular were getting plenty of shots away, yet Baz had still only made one save. Stoke's next attack saw Leris take another but we'll never know where it was heading as KWP's block saw it spin out for a corner. The Ref blew while the corner was still incoming for McNally's foul on Manners.
Our next attack saw a lovely move involving AA setting up Alcaraz, the ball going out from McNally's challenge yet it was deemed a goal kick. Down the other wing, Sully flew by his marker again but this time the ball ran out of play. Stoke then attacked down their right and Leris was played into the box. Downes was tracking him and leaned in, the Algerian went over like a rag doll and Hinchcliffe was convinced it was a penalty. The Ref wasn't and there is no VAR to worry about on a Tuesday night in Stoke.
We should have doubled our lead on 55m when Downes played in Sully right in front of goal. He shot with the keeper going the wrong way but Travers stuck out a boot and the ball went by the post. Bugger!!
In the commotion, defender Wilmott collided with that same goalpost and was clearly hurt. He was down for several minutes till the medics called for a stretcher. That wasn't required as the player was able to limp off and Stoke sent on Jordan Thompson to replace him.
When Manning finally got to deliver the corner he found Charly in a decent position but he mistimed his leap and the ball came off the top of his head and into the gloves of Travers. When play continued it was clear Thompson was now left back and Tchamadeu was now marking Sully. Hoever had escaped to play alongside McNally in the middle.
RM immediately switched his wingers sending AA to the left to let Sully run at the newcomer. Sully had done little to impede Hoever's darts up the wing so Thompson ran beyond him too. He timed his arrival well as he collected the ball on the edge of our box and hit a firm shot goalwards. Don't know who closed him down but a Saints bot took some pace off the shot and diverted it straight into Baz's arms by his near post.
When the replay was shown Hinchcliffe spotted another penalty shout and Bedders had certainly grabbed Lowe and brought the forward down. I hadn't seen that at normal speed so perhaps both Ref and Lino had missed it too. Stoke were rightly pissed off because VAR would probably have given that one. Que Sera Sera.
Midway through the second half Stoke were still a threat and our lead remained fragile but without the defensive blunders that ruined September, we looked like we might hold on. Stoke made further changes on 70m with Burger and Bae replacing Haksabanovic and Laurent.
Soon after Russ sent on Fraser and Mara for Charly and Sully with Mara as a routine centre forward. Baz made another kicking error but this one went out for a throw on which Stoke failed to capitalise. They threw on Wesley to play two up top and Hoever came off. From that point, I lost track of who was playing where.
Manners then conceded a corner from which the ball arrived among fewer giants and Baz was able to punch clear. It came right back though from Leris who landed the ball on Wesley's head but the Brazilian missed our goal.
The most amusing event of the evening was when Burger was so intent on tackling one of ours that he didn't see the Ref, ran into him and fell over. What fun!!
Stoke pushed more players forward and on 78m Pearson received the ball in our box but a brave challenge by Bedders saw his shot skew off target. The Pole was down hurt and with Shea Charles waiting to come on it looked like his game might be over. But, the magic sponge worked and Bedders was able to rejoin the game. Charles and Joe Aribo replaced Stu and Adam who passed the armband to Bednarek.
A swift break upfield saw Aribo play in Mara who really should have scored but he went for the near post and put it wide. Damn and blast! The final 10 minutes were end to end and whilst it wasn't that good it remained exciting.
On 85m Fraser found Shea in front of goal and he drew a routine save from Travers. Moments later came an unexpected outbreak of "handbags" with Downes taking exception to something Johnson did and they had to be pulled apart by teammates. Both earned yellow cards for that episode. Downes looked really bloody angry.
The next flashpoint followed soon. Manning appeared to tackle Burger fairly yet the Dutchman went down and stayed down. Leris, who'd been in the Ref's ear all evening, said something untoward which earned their 4th card of the night. Stoke had been pretty dirty all game but were starting to look like they were losing it now.
Bae had a shot blocked and we went right up the pitch where Will did too, his shot going off Thompson for a corner. Fraser's kick found Will but he got it all wrong and headed over. Ten added minutes were signaled but that was probably right given the stoppages. In typical Saints fashion, we dropped back in numbers and conceded more corners. We defended them OK but had no out ball as our whole team was now defending. RM rubber-stamped this by sending on Holgate for Smallbone.
Stoke created chances: Burger's left-wing cross was headed wide by Lowe then Johnson's diagonal cross was claimed by Baz. The keeper then made a real save. On 96m Burger got a decent strike away but Baz dived to his right and palmed it away. I've seen him knock those back into the danger area so this was a vast improvement—a clean sheet for the first time since Old Trafford was on the cards. Bae had a shot blocked but Aribo then carried us down the right wing where we wasted time near the corner flag.
Andy Hinchcliffe made Stu Armstrong his Man of the Match and Stoke launched their final attack. Leris was flagged offside and they never got the ball back. We passed it about, won some free kicks and time was up.
We had a right old battle with Stoke, midweek, at their Gaff and came away with 3 points. That is a badge of honour in this division and sets us up nicely for a home game with Rotherham on Saturday.
It was not pretty but we are on 16 points and on the tails of the playoff contenders. Given that crap run last month perhaps a corner has been turned.
Stu was certainly a contender and his goal was a diamond among some pretty poor football. However, to come here and battle with a very physical team that tried all means to beat us made me pleased with our spirit and strength tonight. Young Flynn Downes lost his rag but I can only see that as a positive given our weakness for the past season and a half.
It is a slow process but I detect a team spirit and a team identity emerging and the skill we showed against Leeds plus the grit required tonight needs time to flourish. I know Adam wears the armband and is demonstrating his ability in this league but I'm going to make Jan Bednarek my Man of the Match. His leadership and experience beside our younger players help them improve their matchcraft and with or without the armband he is a positive influence in this team.