Stoke's Late Drama Deflates Villains

Patrick JohnstonCorrespondent IMarch 1, 2009

Stoke Drama Deflates Villains

A Glen Whelan equalizer in injury time denied Aston Villa an eight point cushion over fifth place Arsenal in the race for the final Champions League qualifying spot.  More importantly, it lifts Stoke above M’boro into 17th and out of the relegation zone.

In the most unlikely of comebacks, the Potters were able to secure only their fourth point from their ventures away from the Britannia Stadium. In what many consider to be the tightest relegation battle in the EPL in years, the Stoke faithful may look back upon this day as the one that saved them from the drop.

In a match which was fully controlled by Villa until the last 10 minutes, Stoke looked dead and buried in the 79th minute when John Carew, subbed in just minutes before for a limping Emile Hesky, brilliantly put home a first time volley that he redirected from a pass from Villa’s other goalscorer, Stiliyan Petrov. 

Petrov had put Martin O’Neil’s side in front at the end of the first half with a screamer from just inside his own box to the far post of Thomas Sorenson’s goal.  Sorenson could only throw himself in the shot’s direction and pray.

The only answer he got was a singing of the twine and Villa went into the dressing room up 1-0.

Stoke offered very limited resistance in the second half and Villa was in control looking for what they believed would be the clincher. When Carew’s sublime strike made it 2-0, there seemed to be little doubt that Villa was bagging three points and looking to give Chelsea and Liverpool notice that they were intending to go directly into the Champion’s League group stage and by pass the qualifying round which only the fourth place team from the EPL will have to do.

At this point the odds makers were probably offering outrageous pay offs for anyone brave enough to bet on a Potter comeback.  But come back they did.  In an entirely unexpected reversal, Stoke put their tails up and went at the Villa goal without restraint.

Notice was served that the Potters were full of intent when substitute, and eventual hero Whelan, fired a shot from outside the box that struck Brad Freidel’s right post in the 83rd minute. Another Stoke chance went begging when the other Potter hero, Ryan Shawcross, rose to hammer a header well over Freidel’s goal.

In the 88th minute, Shawcross made amends when he climbed above Villa’s defense to head home a tantalizing, curling cross from James Beattie out on the Potter right flank. Villa, which had gone into hibernation after their second goal, awoke but was still looking groggy.  

As regulation expired, Villa was harassing the Potter defense but could not contain them long enough and Stoke took route one to the Villa box as two minutes of injury time was ticking away.

One of the salvos fired into the box found 54th minute sub Ricardo Fuller.  He was able to nod a header back outside the box and Whelan delivered the heroics.

Freidel watched in dismay as Stoke celebrated as if they had just escaped relegation.

For all practical purposes, the performance and point may have done just that for Tony Pulis and his Potters.