Stoke City 2 Walsall 1
Even though Stoke are in a higher division, Walsall will look back on this disappointing fourth-round FA Cup tie as a missed opportunity to progress and perhaps earn a money-spinning tie with one of the top clubs.
The Potters had managed only one goal in their previous four matches, and that was against little Tamworth in the third round, but instead of going for the throats of the Championship under-achievers the Saddlers were timid and ineffective in the first half.
That enabled Stoke to grow in confidence, score a goal just before and just after half time, and pick up a rare home win although teenage striker Alex Nicholls almost earned a replay with a superb late strike which was brilliantly saved by substitute goalkeeper Ed De Goey.
It was a bad day for Walsall. Out of a cup competition for the second time in five days, they found that four teams just below them in the Coca-Cola League One relegation fight had picked up valuable points.
The Saddlers are only two points above the drop zone, admittedly with one game or two in hand of some of their rivals, but manager Paul Merson still has an eye on the other end of the table.
"We probably need to win 12 of the next 17 games to get in the play-offs," he said. "But let's get safe first. I have seen enough to know this team is capable of winning games.
"We score goals and we make chances. We beat Barnsley in the previous round, and they ripped Nottingham Forest apart in the league on Friday night.
"If we win our two games in hand we could move up seven places and we have an important match on Tuesday night."
Tomorrow Walsall visit struggling Swindon Town who are one place off the bottom, so Merson is looking for at least a point there. But he will again be without new signing Paul Devlin, still under treatment for a calf injury, while central defender Chris Westwood finished the Stoke match with a swollen ankle which makes him doubtful. To add to Merson's problems, Ian Roper is not yet fit to return.
Backed by an encouraging away following of 2,738 fans, the Saddlers hit too many aerial balls in the first half at the Britannia Stadium which was puzzling in view of the fact that they must have one of the smallest sides in the Football League.
Tiny teenager David McDermott was out of his depth and had to be replaced early in the second half by another youngster, 18-year-old Nicholls, whose stronger physique and pace made an immediate impact.
But before that happened Stoke - likened by Merson as being like men from the Land of the Giants - were two ahead and on their way to the next round.
At the end of the first half Walsall fell to yet another set-piece. A long throw into the penalty area was met by goal-keeper Andy Oakes with a poor punch which fell at the feet of Karl Henry whose low shot was blocked by Anthony Gerrard only for the huge Mamady Sidibe to slam the loose ball into the roof of the net.
Four minutes after half time former Manchester United winger Luke Chadwick showed his quality by cutting in quickly from the right and beating Oakes with a perfect cross-shot.
Walsall looked finished but only two minutes later they were back in contention with a fine goal. Mads Timm found Mark Wright unmarked and the winger's low cross was swept into the net by Kevin James - his second FA Cup goal since joining the club on loan from Nottingham Forest.
Then, in the 67th minute, a clever dummy by Michael Leary set up Nicholls for an instant low shot that came back off the foot of an upright.
The Saddlers continued to battle in the search for an equaliser and in the dying moments Nicolls again demonstrated his huge promise with a tremendous, dipping drive which De Goey tipped over brilliantly.
Now Walsall can concentrate on the only goal left to them - climbing away from the threat of relegation.
Merson needs at least a couple of new players to help the cause but the transfer window is starting to close and it appears that the Bescot purse strings are drawn tight.
Today young Birmingham City striker Andrew Barrow-man joins the Saddlers on trial with an opportunity to make a name and help the Saddlers solve a problem that has dogged them since the sale of Matty Fryatt to Leicester City and Jorge Leitao's return to Portugal.