STOKE CITY are virtually guaranteed a fourth season of Barclays Premier League football now . . . after storming to an emphatic Staffordshire derby victory over relegation-threatened Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Britannia Stadium.
The FA Cup finalists now sit in ninth position in the Premier League table after their latest triumph on home soil, although it did come at a price as winger Matthew Etherington sustained a hamstring injury which could make him a major doubt for Wembley.
With a tally of 42 points, City are not mathematically safe yet, but they are now looking upwards and towards a top half finish to cap a memorable season.
Club record signing Kenwyne Jones set them on the way with his fourth goal in as many games and Ryan Shawcross tucked home the second before half time.
Man-of-the-match Jermaine Pennant, who had played a part in the first two goal, added the third himself shortly after half-time and but for some excellent saves from Wayne Hennessey the margin of victory would have been greater.
It certainly gave onlooking Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini plenty of food for thought as he checked on their FA Cup Final opponents.
Pulis resisted the temptation to make changes to his starting line-up, although he was forced to name a replacement on the bench for the injured Fuller and that opportunity went to Carew who had recovered from a stomach virus.
In blustery conditions that were a stark contrast to the warm weather at Villa Park, both sides struggled to make an impact in the early stages.
The first real threat came from the visitors as Kightly worked his way into a shooting position but his final effort was a tame one which rolled wide.
Kightly then created another opening for Wolves with good work on the right hand side, but his cross to the far post was headed behind by Wilkinson and the referee ruled that the full back was being fouled by Fletcher as he cleared the danger.
City began to exert some pressure and the Wolves defence was forced to deal with a couple of long throw-ins from Delap launched into the box.
The Potters then went in front in the 15th minute with a move that was started and finished by Jones to continue his hot scoring streak.
His muscular presence held off Craddock before laying the ball out to Pennant and then he burst forward to head home the winger's cross which hung in the air invitingly for him on the edge of the six-yard box.
City went close to stretching their lead five minutes later when Wilkinson burst forward onto a delightful chip forward from Pennant and a struck firm shot to Hennessey's right, but the 'keeper pushed away his goalbound effort.
After a quiet opening, the Potters were now picking holes in the Wolves defence and Jones sprung the offside trap when Wilkinson played the ball down the right channel, but his shot was somewhat wayward and flew harmlessly wide.
There was a tremendous atmosphere inside the stadium, although the air of celebration was cut short when Etherington pulled up sharply as he tried to go round Stearman and had to be stretchered off with a hamstring injury.
But City regained the upper hand quickly and Jones headed over the bar after excellent work from Walters on the right flank.
Wolves pushed Mancienne into the left back spot in place of Ward to deal with the constant threat of Pennant and he soon had his hands full too.
Ward, however, popped up in a more attacking role and when the ball broke to him on the edge of the box he hooked a volley well off target.
Substitute Dean Whitehead, who had replaced Etherington, burst through the middle onto a pass from Pennant but although he fired his shot low to Hennessey's right, the 'keeper produced a stunning reflex save to push it away.
Hennessey was then called upon to pull off another crucial save moments later when Shawcross met a Pennant free kick with his head, the 'keeper pushing it onto the bar.
But City's captain wasn't to be denied from the resulting corner played to the edge of the box by Pennant for Whelan to drill it into a crowded goalmouth. It deflected off a Wolves defender and Shawcross was there to calmly slot home his shot.
Any concern that City might have had that Wolves would repeat their second half fightback of last season at the Britannia Stadium was extinguished five minutes after the break when they built up the cushion of a three-goal advantage.
Walters played a key part in the build-up with a run down the right and his cross found Pennant whose shot deflected off Craddock and bounced up beyond the reach of Hennessey's despairing dive to nestle in the sidenetting.
Although Wolves had a period of sustained pressure in which they forced a succession of corners, they were unable to make them count.
City then caused more problems from set pieces as Pennant whipped in a corner from the right and Huth appeared to be held back by Berra as he tried to meet the cross before Shawcross headed another excellent delivery from the winger over the bar.
Walters went close to adding a fourth when he burst forward, but chose on the outside of the defender and struck a left foot shot just past the far post.
City made their second substitution of the night when Pennant was replaced by Pugh, and as well as getting a standing ovation, virtually all his team-mates shook his hand after what was an outstanding contribution to the excellent performance.
The jubilant Potters fans were nearly treated to another Walters special in the closing stages as he showed great strength to win possession off Henry and then he ventured forward before unleashing a long range drive which flashed past the upright.
Walters was proving a real handful with his strong running and he set up substitute Danny Pugh in injury, but he fired his shot over the bar.