An incident packed and thoroughly entertaining Boxing Day encounter saw Town pick up another vital point to consolidate their mid table position in the penultimate game of a momentous 2017.
Better decision making in the final third would have trebled the reward for an often pulsating display, but it is difficult to begrudge the visitors, who rather belied their reputation for dull pragmatism, a share of the spoils and they will feel that their efforts could have seen them record a rare away win.
Restoring Smith and Löwe in to the full back positions reunited a back four with a penchant for clean sheets, Hogg returned from suspension to partner Mooy and Depoitre was given a well earned rotational rest as Mounié was chosen to lead the line.
The last of these changes was, perhaps, the most controversial but Wagner has to manage thin resources in periods of intensity and deserves the utmost respect and leeway for the decisions he makes given his past successes.
It must be said that the Benin international had an inconsequential first half, including an air shot when put in a good position by the resurgent Quaner, which was out of step with an otherwise excellent 45 minutes by the home side, presenting Wagner with something of a Catch-22. An extended run in the team would help Mounié but that would be at the unthinkable expense of the more convincing alternative.
From the off, Town pressed their opponents effectively and, with the ball, regularly threatened the Potters with flowing moves, intelligent possession and aggressive intent while the visitors, when they could shake off the shackles, looked to the experience of Crouch and Joe Allen, the mercurial Shaqiri and the guile of Choupo-Moting to counter.
An early effort from Ince rounded off an incisive first attack but his 45th attempt of the season flew wide. His 46th was to finally shift the monkey off his back, but not before the visitors created two presentable chances on the break. Shaqiri capitalised on a rare Zanka error and forced Lössl in to a decent save. The attack wasn’t over, however, and Joe Allen poked an effort from a tight angle for Lössl to gather comfortably.
Quaner – who has seized his opportunity in the starting line up with excellent displays – fired well wide after a strong, purposeful run which he would repeat all afternoon, and the tempo of the game had been set very early.
Minutes later, Quaner was at it again. Riding his luck in a tackle, the German pounced on the space which opened up, played a one two with Smith and somehow swivelled under pressure at the near post to set up Ince for his first goal in Town colours.
The delight and relief of Ince was reciprocated by a crowd who have never lost faith in him. Recognising his hard work, undoubted talent and perseverance, they have longed for his luck to change and more will surely follow.
Stoke responded with a high ball to beanpole Crouch who beat Schindler in the air and headed towards Shaqiri. Zanka failed to cut it out only for the recovering Schindler to put in an excellent block to deny the Potters an equaliser.
Following that scare, Town took control. Hunting in packs, they hounded the visitors in to error, repeatedly picked up second balls and threatened down both flanks. Quaner, who menaced the visiting defence all afternoon, fed Mounié in for the air shot mentioned previously and just failed to find him in the box again following another pacy run which, perhaps, he should have taken on himself.
Another Zanka error allowed Shaqiri another opportunity which took a slight deflection on Löwe’s block and creeped past the far post with Lössl beaten. The scare was a reminder to Town that despite Stoke’s indifferent season to date, they possess significant talent in their ranks; it is the ineffective marshalling of that quality which is annoying the good citizens of the Potteries.
Shaqiri’s effort resulted in a corner from which Town somehow resisted a siege on their goal. Lössl made a good save from a Shawcross header, Zouma’s follow up was hacked off the line and Choupo-Moting was crowded out as he tried to force the ball in. The danger wasn’t over, however, as Wimmer recovered the ball before it went out of play and laid it back for Shaqiri to cross. Zouma headed toward goal, Schindler intervened but only to loop the ball backwards and Choupo-Moting executed what appeared to be a perfect overhead kick only for Lössl to make an outstanding double save, first pushing the ball on to the post, then recovering as Stoke forwards tried to pounce.
The gloriously named Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, along with every other person in the stadium, could barely believe he hadn’t scored with goal line technology denying him by a minuscule margin.
The remarkable escape spurred Town in to dominance for the rest of the half and they established control with good possession and pressure on the ball when out of it. Van La Parra brought a good save from Butland and also shot wide when played in by Hogg as Town turned the screw.
Mooy, who had a mixed game in a hugely competitive midfield, had a great opportunity to shoot late on but chose to try and play in Van La Parra – he was to repeat his reluctance to try his luck in the second half and had been similarly shy at Southampton, suggesting he is either over thinking or slightly jaded as the games mount.
Stoke ended the first half proceedings with a disallowed goal – the unfortunate Choupo-Moting had drifted marginally offside – and while they were outplayed at times in a pulsating 45 minutes, they always looked capable of scoring through one of their higher quality individuals.
The second half began brightly for the hosts and Mounié, who had been a little lost in the opening period, executed a nice overhead kick which just cleared the bar. The effort seemed to give him a confidence boost as he improved from there on in.
Stoke’s first corner of the second half saw Town adopt an interesting tactic to counter the visitors’ obvious threat from set pieces by leaving 3 men up field. This was a radical departure as the Terriers always bring everybody back and crowd the space in the area. This had been more of a problem than a solution in the first half and the innovation worked; Stoke failed to create any direct danger from several second half corners, though Shaqiri fired over when Quaner was unable to clear the first one cleanly.
Continuing where they left off, Town dominated the opening quarter of an hour of the half with Ince, Van La Parra and Mounié having strikes at goal. Butland dealt comfortably with the first, smartly with the second and watched the ball sail high over for the third.
The dominance was to come to an abrupt end however as Mooy lost the ball under considerable pressure just inside Stoke’s half. Allen sprung forward with menace and was brought down by Schindler who earned a booking. From the free kick, Stoke worked Joe Allen free down the left and the Welshman fired an excellent and pinpoint ball across the back of Town’s retreating defence for Sobhi to convert at the back post.
It was a simple but very well constructed goal with the interplay between Choupo-Moting and Allen leaving Town defenders bemused and exposed as they were stripped bare.
The bemusement seemed to spread as Town suffered a nervous period where Stoke got on top and Lössl, who had an excellent day, had to save a decent Choupo-Moting effort before they gradually regained control.
On the hour, Mounié (who was actually growing in to the game) was replaced by Depoitre and Lolley was introduced for Van La Parra.
The big Belgian had an immediate impact, releasing Quaner for yet another powerful run at the Stoke defence – Butland saved his slightly weird shot disguised as a cross (or vice versa) and Town’s quest for a winner was underway.
Taking a short corner, the hosts were denied what looked like a pretty obvious penalty as Mooy was barged off the ball by Allen on the touch line. Success from the spot at that point would have been the perfect platform for victory given Town’s ability to manage games in the final quarter but may have influenced the referee’s decision 5 minutes later when Diouf was taken out by Schindler after being put through by a Crouch header.
If anything, Stoke’s penalty claim was even stronger than Town’s and referee Taylor’s thought processes on both defy rational explanation. Unless you consider the possibility that he is a schmuck.
Reacting to their disappointment, Stoke rather retreated in to their shell and Lolley and Quaner worked tirelessly in tandem with their full backs to create opportunities thwarted by a lack of decisiveness, a packed defence and Butland who had to make a few, all be it comfortable, saves.
If the last 20 minutes were slightly overshadowed by fatigue on both sides, the game was a great spectacle. Town looked the better side on the ball but Stoke have genuine quality in some of their players and it is a little surprising that they have struggled to such an extent so far – they never looked less than dangerous going forward and, all in all, both clubs could be satisfied with their performance and point.
Lössl, Quaner and Hogg were excellent throughout while Lolley’s half hour was promising after so many setbacks for the ex Kidderminster man. While Mooy was fairly average by his standards, they are pretty high standards and his workload has been heavy in December.
At the back, Town rather strained to contain Stoke’s flair players and Crouch with Zanka being far less assured than in recent games and Schindler fortunate to get away with both his challenge on Diouf and another red card had it lead to a second yellow.
Two more games in this intensive period before the second string go to Bolton for the cup and, hopefully, new recruits appear to relieve the pressure on the more regular performers.
Burnley’s heroics at Old Trafford only emphasise the challenges which come thick and fast in the rarefied air of the Premier League, but results elsewhere on Boxing Day maintained Town’s healthy gap over the relegation zone.