STOKE CITY were forced to rue several squandered opportunities as Cardiff City held the Potters to a goalless draw at the Britannia Stadium on Wednesday evening.
A second half barrage from the hosts failed to reap the rewards it deserved as both poor finishing and some superb Bluebirds defending denied Mark Hughes’ side of the three points that their performance had been worthy of.
Results elsewhere meant that both sides elevated themselves higher up the league table, with Stoke moving into 14th, a single position of the Bluebirds who jumped up a spot into 15th.
Hughes sprung a major surprise ahead of kick-off having named Marko Arnautovic in his starting line-up, despite declaring him as an absentee just 24 hours earlier.
The inclusion of the Austrian international was one of two changes from the eleven that were well beaten at Goodison Park at the weekend, with Marc Wilson the other player called up at the expense of Marc Muniesa.
The Republic of Ireland international came into the heart of defence alongside captain Ryan Shawcross in Robert Huth’s absence, whilst Arnautovic’s starting role meant Jon Walters missed out on a league start for the first time since January 2011.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was typical of an evening midweek encounter, with both sets of supporters in fine voice as the players entered the stadium to a cauldron of noise.
Unfortunately, the opening 20 minutes of the clash wasn’t quite as electric with neither team able to assert themselves on the other.
In fact, the only real effort of note during the opening half of the first period was a long-range effort from Bluebirds midfielder Jordon Mutch, which took a wicked deflection off the leg of Shawcross before finding its way into the advertising boards behind Asmir Begovic’s goal.
Stoke though began to grow in both stature and confidence as the game progressed with Arnautovic in particular offering hope of either scoring or assisting what would in the circumstances have been a crucial opening goal.
It was the creative forward who delivered a scintillating ball through the middle to free Oussama Assaidi shortly before the half hour mark, although the Moroccan was unable to control the ball, leaving ‘keeper David Marshall looking incredibly relieved.
An old-fashioned goalmouth scramble very nearly gifted Peter Crouch his second league goal of the campaign soon after, but Scotland international Marshall was able to block his goal-bound effort from 6-yards out.
At the other end a brief Cardiff surge forward almost saw them grab an undeserved lead through Fraizer Campbell, with the hosts indebted to the in-form Begovic for producing another splendid save to add to his catalogue already this season.
Normality resumed in the aftermath of that effort though, and Stoke eventually found a way through the Cardiff backline and appeared to have taken the lead through Geoff Cameron’s close range finish, only for the linesman to rule it out for offside.
Hughes’ side ended the first half in the ascendency but were unable to find another avenue through the Cardiff backline; a similar story to the start of the second half as the newly promoted Welsh side continued to frustrate the hosts.
The same could be said of the Potters however, as their backline looked relatively untroubled – restricting the Blues to a series of long-range efforts, which were in truth bread and butter for World Cup bound Begovic.
Muniesa, who was introduced during the interval for the injured Erik Pieters, showed good composure in his first league action at the Britannia Stadium, and also showed to be a good defender too, with several crucial interventions.
It was the Spanish under 21 starlet who used great pace and trickery to free himself of Don Cowie on the flank midway through the second half, before feeding a delicious ball into the path of Assaidi, who in turn picked out Crouch, but his header was powered over the bar.
The Moroccan was showing signs of why Liverpool acquired his services from Dutch side Heerenveen just over 12-months ago with another fine run down the left, teeing up Charlie Adam 20-yards out, although he was unable to hit the target.
Stephen Ireland was introduced midway through the second half as Hughes looked to add a bit more quality in the final third, with Glenn Whelan being the player to make way for his international compatriot.
The Aston villa loanees arrival sparked wave after wave of Stoke attacks, but on each occasion a lack of cutting edge in front of goal and a mixture of some fine defending ensured that Marshall’s goal wasn’t going to be breached.
Ireland, Arnautovic, Cameron and Crouch were all guilty of squandering clear openings in the final ten minutes of a pulsating second 45 minutes, but frustratingly the visitors were able to hold on for their lives and depart back to South Wales with a point.