STOKE CITY were stunned by late strikes from Matthew Lowton and Christian Benteke after clawing their way back into the crucial Barclays Premier League encounter with Aston Villa at the Britannia Stadium.
Tony Pulis’ side thought they had salvaged at least a point when Michael Kightly swept home an equaliser ten minutes from time as they mounted a late comeback after trailing to a Gabby Agbonlahor goal.
But Lowton fired home a 30-yard volley in the 87th minute and then Benteke wrapped it up with a breakaway third.
It condemned the Potters to their fifth defeat in six games and leaves them looking uneasily over their shoulder at the relegation battle below them with another six matches of the campaign still remaining.
Although City struggled after Agbonlahor stabbed home his close range effort, they rallied in the second half and the introduction of Kightly, Cameron Jerome and Charlie Adam certainly made a big difference.
When they grabbed the equaliser, it appeared they had the momentum to go on and win the game, but Villa’s second goal came out of the blue and they then boosted their own survival hopes by sealing the win.
Pulis had made three changes to the side beaten at Everton seven days earlier with Whitehead, Etherington and Jones all named in the starting line-up.
The presence of Etherington, who had been struggling with groin and back problems, was a major boost, although Whelan was ruled out through injury.
City began the game brightly and immediately had appeals for a penalty waved away when Walters’ cross struck the outstretched arm of Villa defender Baker.
The tempo of the Potters’ early play was certainly very encouraging and Etherington released a first time pass to Jones who found the space just inside the box to unleash a shot, but it was sliced high and wide of the target much to the visitors’ relief.
But after a promising start to the encounter, City found themselves a goal down against the run of play when Agbonlahor scored from close range.
The opportunity was set up Lowton’s penetrating run down the right hand side as he wriggled into an excellent position before squaring it to Agbonlahor who failed to make contact initially, but reacted smartly to sweep the ball home.
The situation could have got considerably worse for the Potters moments later when City stood off Bowery as he strode forward to fire a 20-yard shot goalbound which the Villa supporters thought had gone in, but actually hit the sidenetting.
Begovic then had to make an instinctive save high above his head when Benteke hooked a shot towards the top corner from close range and then Agbonlahor was only inches wide with a speculative shot from the right hand edge of the box.
City had another big let-off on the half hour when Weimann burst through the middle of the park, leaving Huth in his shadow, and placed his shot wide of the diving Begovic and watched in anguish as it rebounded back out off the foot of the post.
The alarm bells were ringing again for the Potters when Agbonlahor burst clear down the left and after initially hesitating over whether to come, Begovic eventually made his challenge from which the Villa striker went down theatrically.
Although television replays indicated that there was some contact, referee Clattenburg ruled that Agbonlahor had dived and showed him a yellow card.
City were forced to make a change at the break with Kightly coming on for Etherington, who had been a major doubt in the lead-up the game.
No sooner had the action got back underway than Villa were carving out another excellent chance to stretch their lead as Bowery found himself in on goal, but fortunately for the Potters, Begovic stood tall and pulled off an excellent reflex save.
A second substitution had to be made when Wilson limped off injured and that was the cue for Pulis to introduce Jerome to spearhead the attack.
It meant a reshuffle at the back with Cameron moving across to left back while Shotton dropped into a deeper position on the right hand side.
Jerome lifted the crowd with a run down the left, but although he succeeded in whipping the ball into the six yard box, there was no-one there to turn that promise into a clearcut opportunity and the Villa defence dealt with the threat.
With Villa then enjoying a spell of pressure themselves, Huth and Shotton collected bookings when they were guilty of clumsy challenges.
After struggling for long periods in the game, City were buoyed by two chances which fell their way in quick succession midway through the half.
The determination and power of Jones made the first one as he shrugged off two defenders before unleashing a thunderbolt of a shot which hit Baker full in the face, leaving him flat out on the ground and requiring lengthy treatment.
The Villa defender was able to resume, but he and his team-mates were stretched as Jerome burst into the box and pulled the ball back to Jones in an excellent position, but unfortunately on this occasion he was unable to make clean contact.
The final throw of the dice from Pulis came when he sent on Adam in place of Shotton, meaning that Whitehead then dropped to right back.
The Scottish international had an immediate impact as he threaded a pass through to Walters who unfortunately couldn’t bring it under control.
But Adam was then right at the heart of a move which led to City getting themselves on level terms with a goal from one of their other substitutes.
His pass initially released Walters down the left and then he crucially stabbed the ball into Kightly’s path just inside the box and he swept the ball home from twelve yards out.
City appeared to have the momentum at that point to go and win the match and Jones tried to force his way into a good position on the edge of the box only to lose possession.
The euphoria soon turned to despair as Villa regained their lead in spectacular fashion when the Potters could only half clear a corner.
It dropped to Lowton some 30 yards out and although there appeared no immediate threat, the defender brought it under control and unleashed a stunning volley which looped over Begovic and flew into his right hand corner of the net.
City were now chasing the game again in search of an equaliser with time running out and their commitment to doing that proved costly.
Villa launched a swift counter attack and with no defensive cover, Benteke strode forward with twon team-mates in support and he kept his nerve to calmly slide his shot under Begovic and seal a 3-1 triumph for Paul Lambert’s side.