STOKE CITY edged closer to a point where they are mathematically safe from relegation . . . even though they were pegged back by ten-man Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
Tony Pulis’ side looked on course for a third successive Barclays Premier League victory when Jonathan Walters fired them into an eighth minute lead before the home side suffered a further setback when makeshift defender Craig Gardner was shown a red card.
But Sunderland hit back in the second half when their skipper John O’Shea lashed home a corner from close range and a point apiece seemed a fair result in the end.
The point consolidated City’s position in eleventh place in the table and with their goal difference being better than teams below them, they are within touching distance now of making absolutely sure of a sixth season in the Barclays Premier League.
Pulis had been forced to make two changes to the side that overcame Norwich City nine days earlier with Wilkinson and Whelan both ruled out through injury, but he was able to call upon Wilson and Whitehead to fill those places in his starting line-up.
As ever, the Sunderland fans gave a warm reception to three of their former players with Whitehead in the side, while Sorensen and Jones were on the bench.
Both sides took time to settle, with passes going astray, but Begovic was the first ‘keeper called into action to comfortably claim a cross from Johnson.
It was Sunderland who forced the first corner of the game in the seventh minute, but although City only half cleared it, Larsson tried a shot with his weaker left foot from 20 yards out which sailed well wide of the target, much to the Potters’ relief.
When the Potters were then awarded their first corner following a penetrating run from Shotton, it led to them taking the lead in the eighth minute.
Adam swung the corner in from the right and although Walters saw his initial header blocked by Graham on the line, the striker followed up with a close range volley which flew in off the underside of the bar with Mignolet well-beaten.
The response from the home side came in the form of a free kick some 25 yards out after a foul on Graham, but although Gardner struck it well, Begovic had it covered and was more than happy to let flash wide of his right hand post.
City were coping well with any pressure that Sunderland exerted on them and Johnson was forced to try a shot from long range when he was tracked on a run by Whitehead, but his effort was too high to pose any danger to Begovic.
The Potters were forced to defend resolutely as the home side strived to build some pressure and Shawcross headed clear under pressure when Gardner swung a menacing cross into the box from the right looking for the incoming Graham.
The game then exploded as Sunderland first picked up a yellow card for Cuellar’s push on Jerome before they were reduced to ten men when referee Mason showed Gardner a straight red for a high challenge on Adam by the touchline.
In the aftermath of the dismissal, Larsson also went into the referee’s book for dissent while there was a delay for a pitch invader as well.
As the half moved into three minutes of added time, City carved out a good chance when Adam rounded off a succession of passes with a deep cross from the left in the direction of Walters and Jerome, the latter heading just wide.
City were forced to make a change at the break with Wilson’s hamstring still causing him problems, so Cameron was brought on in his place.
The substitution led to a reshuffle with Shotton switching to left back to combat the threat of Johnson with Cameron on the right.
It was Johnson who gave the home fans encouragement when he cut inside from the right and unleashed a 20-yard drive which was straight at Begovic, the giant Bosnian showing clean handling as he moved smartly to his left.
City were retaining possession well and threatening to open up the home side defence on occasions, Crouch being ruled offside as he chested down a cross from Adam and trying to manoeuvre himself into a shooting position inside the box.
Whitehead, the former Sunderland captain, came to his side’s rescue with a goal-line clearance when a deep corner from Larsson was headed back across goal and it broke for N’Diaye to try a shot on the turn from close range.
It was a short-lived reprieve for City as the home side equalised in the 63rd minute as another corner delivered by Larsson from the left hand side led to their skipper O’Shea rifling the ball home from close range to make it one apiece.
The Potters’ best opportunity of the half fell to Whitehead when the Sunderland defence only half cleared a long throw-in launched into the box by Shotton, but although the midfielder struck his 20-yard well, Mignolet saved at the second attempt.
An astute header from Cameron found Adam in space on the right as Sunderland pushed, but he cut inside and struck his shot well, it drifted wide of the target.
Sunderland went close to going in front with ten minutes remaining as Rose cleverely squeezed a shot through the legs of the City defenders which wrongfooted Begovic and he could watch as it clipped the outside of his right hand post.
Pulis made his second change of the evening when Etherington was introduced in place of Adam and the winger was immediately in the thick of things.
He swung over two successive corners from the right, the second of which fell to Nzonzi who hooked an overhead kick over the bar from six yards out.
With four minutes added on at the end, Pulis opted to make another switch as Jones replaced Crouch, while Johnson was replaced by Bardsley for the home side, the England winger appearing to be suffering from cramp in the closing stages.