CONTROVERSY reigned at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon as Stoke City succumbed to an undeserved 2-1 defeat against in-form Crystal Palace.
Referee Andre Marriner found himself at the centre of the controversy having awarded the visitors a controversial first-half penalty before denying the Potters a clear-cut one during the second 45 minutes.
The Potters had looked firmly on course to bounce back from last weekend’s narrow defeat against West Bromwich Albion, with Mame Diouf handing his side the initiative 14 minutes in with his ninth goal of the campaign.
Chances to double that advantage came and went before Asmir Begovic was harshly adjudged to have bundled over Yannick Bolasie inside the penalty area.
Glenn Murray stepped up and emphatically hammered the ball into the roof of the net to draw his side undeservedly level.
Disappointment soon turned to disaster as Palace struck for a second time in just four minutes right on the stroke of half-time.
This time Murray was the provider, flicking the ball through to the pacy Wilfried Zaha, who made no mistake from 12-yards.
Mark Hughes made four changes to his starting line-up prior to kick-off – three of which were forced upon him because of injury.
The Welshman lost the services of on-loan Chelsea ace Victor Moses , Jonathan Walters and Glenn Whelan after the trio failed to fully shrug off injuries in time to start.
Phil Bardsley was the other player to vacate the starting eleven with his right-back slot going to United States of America international Geoff Cameron.
Moses’ role out wide went to Diouf with Austrian maverick Marko Arnautovic, who impressed in his cameo appearance at the Hawthorns last weekend, replacing Walters.
Stephen Ireland also returned to the team following a four week lay-off after suffering a nasty gash in the 1-0 triumph over Hull City.
He replaced in-form Whelan, who missed out on his first league start since December after picking up a hamstring injury in training.
Hughes spoke of the character and determination of his side at the pre-match press conference and that was evident during the initial exchanges as the Potters drove forward at every opportunity.
A bad day at the office at the Hawthorns seven days earlier was just a blip on what has been a tremendous post-Christmas record, and the players looked eager to prove that in front of a packed out Britannia Stadium.
Hughes’ decision to pair Adam and Ireland up in midfield had the desired effect as they both displayed calmness and composure on the ball, as well as boasting real tenacity and bite in the central positions.
Both players linked up superbly well in the fourth minute to fashion the afternoon’s first opening with Ireland back-heeling the ball into the path of Adam, who in turn curled a 25-yard effort inches wide of the post.
Adam, seemingly making the most of his recent opportunities in the starting line-up, was at the heart of most positive passages of play throughout the opening period, just as he was ten minutes in with a delightful ball into the danger zone that very nearly found the unmarked Diouf at the back post.
Incidentally, it was his ambition that led to the opening goal of the day being scored just before the quarter hour mark.
The Scotland international let rip a thumping free-kick from no less than 40-yards that ricochet straight into the path of Diouf, who cleverly beat the offside trap, he stuck out his right foot and diverted the ball into the bottom right hand corner from 8-yards.
It wasn’t until midway through the half that the visitors, who had won four of their previous five away games in all competition, created their first sight at goal.
But even then, Jason Puncheon’s strike failed to seriously trouble Bosnian international Asmir Begovic, who watched the forward’s lacklustre effort drift well wide of target.
Alan Pardew’s side were struggling to contain the dominant Potters, and the frustration was growing amongst his players – none more so than Zaha, who was booked for needlessly pushing United States star Cameron.
Stoke looked destined to take a lead into the interval, before a disastrous four minute spell saw the game turn completely on its head.
Referee Marriner handed Palace major reprieve in the 41st minute when he adjudged Begovic to have bundled into Bolasie, who undoubtedly had his foot raised in a dangerous position.
Murray slammed the ball home from the resulting spot-kick, much to the anger of the majority of supporters housed in the Boothen End behind Begovic’s goal.
Shortly after, some uncharacteristically sluggish defending allowed Murray to glance a long punt forward into the path of Zaha, the former Manchester United man raced past Erik Pieters and slotted the ball underneath Begovic.
Hughes’ seemingly straightforward half-time team talk had all of a sudden turned into a more serious briefing, and it was no surprise to see his side come out for the second half with the bit between their teeth.
That was with a five minute spell aside however, where the visitors had numerous opportunities to inflict more salt into the Potters wounds.
Scott Dann hammered the post after being left unmarked from a routine set-piece, whilst James McArthur lashed a ferocious effort narrowly wide of the post from distance.
Thankfully, the home side managed to weather that brief storm, and began to dictate the tempo of the game.
Adam’s deliveries were causing havoc inside the Palace danger zone, with his left-foot in-swinging centres twice going close to catching Speroni off guard.
A third evaded the packed out penalty area and cannoned back into paly via the far post, whilst arguably his most telling contribution of the second half came when he whipped in a stunning ball from the left byline into the path of Diouf, but his close range effort was remarkably saved by Speroni.
You could sense at that moment that it wasn’t going to be Stoke’s day – and you knew for sure it wasn’t going to be their day when Ireland was freed on goal on the hour mark and saw his effort saved, for a second time, by the ‘keepers face.
Hughes ordered his players to continue on their front foot and they did just that, but unfortunately there was no way through a stubborn, and at times fortunate, Eagles backline.
Peter Crouch hit a half volley wide of goal as he tried to replicate the wonder strike he scored against Manchester City several years ago and even Ryan Shawcross, who occupied a more advanced position for the final 20 minutes of the game, looped a header on to the roof of the net late on.
Walters was introduced from the bench by Hughes in one last attempt to salvage a point for his side, but it proved in vein as Pardew’s side held on for a fourth away league triumph in five.