Stoke City 3 Aston Villa 2
Aston Villa proved to be the mugs in a Potteries clash which completely tore up the script.
And as Martin O’Neill’s men walked off the pitch like a bunch of found-out gate-crashers leaving the party, the Villa manager was left to mull over a range of issues which need to be ironed out before his team could seriously be considered as contenders to gate-crash the biggest party of them all - The Premier League top four.
Firstly, Gareth Barry clearly under performed, and was at fault for Stoke City’s second goal. O’Neill must be counting down the days until the end of the transfer window. But after next Sunday, will he be certain that Barry still has the heart for it at Villa?
Secondly, where was Villa’s determination at the Britannia Stadium? Yes, they have the talent. Yes, they have the skill. But Tony Pulis’ strategy of filling the middle of the park with half a dozen six foot-plus hardmen seemed to be more than equal measure for Villa’s swift attacking play.
Thirdly, what is going on in defence? Villa were found wanting when it comes to dealing with a difficult delivery, particularly with Stoke’s third goal.
This was supposed to another 6-0 hammering that Villa had enjoyed at Derby last season. The bookmakers had paid out for Stoke to be relegated in a similar fashion to the Rams.
O’Neill’s only consolation was that this game happened as early as it did. Villa can now put this down to a bad day at the office and get on with the rest of the season.
Villa started poorly in the hotbed of the Britannia Stadium, which looks more like a red and white branch of Ikea than an arena for playing football.
They found it difficult to get the ball, and after both sets of players tried in vain to get the better of referee Mark Halsey, Stoke won a dubious penalty appeal after Martin Laursen had brought down Rory Delap inside the area.
Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel dived low to his left, but was inches away from Liam Lawrence’s drive as the ball nestled into the bottom left corner.
“She stood there laughing” sang the Stoke fans, a line from their anthem "Delilah". Laursen didn’t see the funny side.
Villa stumbled into half-time with little cohesion. Gabriel Agbonlahor was being driven back before he got the chance to launch into one his penetrating runs; Barry was far from sharp, with his mind wandering as far as his wayward passes, and Nicky Shorey was having difficulty competing with Stoke’s physical presence.
But in the second half, Villa looked more assured, and seven minutes after the break, John Carew and Ashley Young linked up to level matters.
The Norwegian latched on to a clever flick from Young and fired past former Villa goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen. It was a neat one-two in front of the away fans; a move that epitomised Villa at their best.
Normal service resumed, it was thought. And Villa dominated in periods as they went in search of a second. Young was particularly menacing on the left. Although his crosses weren’t up to his usual precision.
But it was procrastination by Barry in midfield that gave Stoke the lead. The midfielder gave the ball away before Lawrence released Ricardo Fuller with a perfectly-weighted through-ball and the striker smashed a low shot from a narrow angle past Friedel.
Villa levelled for a second time three minutes later when Laursen atoned for his earlier mistake and swept home past his compatriot from close range.
The away team should have been content at this point to settle for a draw. But instead of keeping the ball, Villa had their backs against the wall for long periods. Stoke continued to unsettle Villa with their set plays, and it was from a deep Delap throw in that they were finally able to break O’Neill’s men.
Mali international Mamady Sidibe, a second-half substitute, rose highest in injury time to head home a long throw-in and give the Potters a dramatic late victory.
Stoke’s first home game in the English top-flight for 23 years finished in party mood.
“We’re staying up” sang the home fans as the Villa players trudged off.
Villa will have far higher ambitions this year. But they will need far more determination to achieve them.
Scorers: Lawrence (30) 1-0; Carew (62) 1-1; Fuller (80) 2-1; Laursen (83) 2-2; Sidibe (90+4) 3-2.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen; Griffin, Cort, Abdoulaye Faye, Dickinson; Lawrence, Olofinjana, Amdy Faye (Diao, 71), Delap; Kitson (Sidibe, 76), Fuller (Cresswell, 86). Subs: Simonsen, Shawcross, Wilkinson, Whelan.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Davies, Laursen, Shorey (Routledge, 72); Reo-Coker, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Subs: Taylor, Knight, Osbourne, Gardner, Salifou, Harewood.
Referee: Mark Halsey (Lancashire).
Booking: Stoke – Kitson (56).