STOKE CITY were once again forced to rue a series of missed chances as their poor run of form continued against Champions League chasing Everton . . . in front of the live television cameras on Saturday evening.
Jonathan Walters, Robert Huth and Ryan Shotton were all culpable of spurning guilt-edged opportunities at Goodison Park, as Belgian Kevin Mirallas proved to be the match-winner with a clinically taken first-
The result leaves the Potters perilously perched above the drop zone on 34 points, just four clear of Aston Villa who occupy the final relegation spot.
Tony Pulis made just a single change to his starting line-up from the side that were held to a goalless draw against West Bromwich Albion two weeks earlier.
Matthew Etherington aggravated a problematic back injury in the build-up to the encounter, meaning that his spot on the left hand side of midfield went to Jonathan Walters.
The Republic of Ireland ace, who bagged a brace in his country’s 2-2 draw with Austria in the week, switched to that position from his more accustomed central attacking role.
Etherington’s spot in the team went to German international Huth, who returned to the heart of defence to resume his impressive partnership with skipper Ryan Shawcross, having served his three-match
Cameron Jerome lined up in attack alongside England international Peter Crouch, with the likes of Michael Owen and Kenwyne Jones named amongst the substitutes.
The Toffees were unable to call upon two of their star players in Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar; both of whom served the first match of two-game bans.
David Moyes was still able to call upon quality and experience as his side looked to close the gap on Tottenham and Arsenal however, with Nikica Jelavic and Phil Jagielka returning to the side.
Everton came into the game in desperate need of three points to keep alive their hopes of hunting down Arsenal and Tottenham and securing themselves Champions League qualification.
The Potters meanwhile retained a comfortable mid-table spot, however, earlier results meant that the side came into the game with a narrower gap than they would like between themselves and the bottom
The recent contrasting fortunes of each side failed to show during the early proceedings of the lively match as the visitors signalled their intentions by looking the more likely to open the scoring.
A long Shotton throw-in caused havoc just four minutes in as both Jagielka and John Heitinga failed to keep tabs of Huth; who rose highest to meet the midfielder’s launch into the box, and force Tim Howard
into a smart save.
The American international, who returned to the team following a two game absence, palmed the German’s goal-bound effort straight into the path of Walters, but his snapshot effort agonisingly cannoned back
off the bar and away from danger.
At the other end a half-hearted penalty appeal was correctly waved away by referee Mike Jones, after several home players claimed that Wilson had controlled the ball inside his own 18-yard box with his hand.
As the half wore on Moyes’ troops gradually began to have a greater say on proceedings with Leighton Baines in-particular causing the City rearguard a number of problems.
It was in fact the England international full-back who cutely picked out the unmarked Jelavic 20 minutes in with a delightful centre, however, the Croatian star was unable to rediscover his killer instinct as
Begovic grasped the ball from under the bar.
That effort appeared to have lifted the home supporters inside the stadium, and as they began to pump up the volume, their side began to pressurise the Potters with undoubtedly more urgency and panache.
Seamus Coleman, the international colleague of a trio of Stoke’s starting eleven, then found space down the right hand side of the field, but having cut inside he chose the more glorified route of firing
harmlessly wide of goal, rather than teeing up one of his teammates.
As Stoke looked to have answered any question that was asked of them by their opposition, the Blues undeservedly scored the opening goal of the game through their Belgian star Mirallas.
The winger took advantage of a classic counter attack, fortuitously getting the better of Steven Nzonzi, and then Cameron, before finishing with aplomb from 15-yards out, to leave the helpless Begovic beaten.
One could have been two a minute later, after the official bizarrely allowed Mirallas to burst through the visitors backline, having clearly pulled Nzonzi to the ground. Thankfully though, his strike wasn’t as tidy
as his first, and the visitors were let off the hook.
Walters very nearly pulled his side back on level terms with a thunderous effort from 25-yards, though Howard was equal to his effort, and superbly palmed the ball away from danger.
The second half began with Stoke pressuring the hosts, winning a series of early corners. Nevertheless, there appeared to be no way through a stubborn Toffees rearguard, until Huth met an in-swinging
Whelan ball and powered a header inches wide of the post.
Jerome then lashed an effort high and wide of goal, before Shotton was presented with arguably the best opportunity of the afternoon, but he was unable to hit the target from 4-yards, after catapulting himself
at the ball.
Mirallas, a constant menace to the visitors, then twist and turned himself into space on the hour mark, but was only able to sting the fingertips of Bosnian number one Begovic, who dealt with the strike with
Victor Anichebe was inches away from connecting to a Baines centre, which would almost certainly have ended any Stoke hopes of a second half fight-back 15 minutes from time.
As it transpired the one goal was enough to secure the hosts a vital three points, despite the late introduction of Charlie Adam and Kenwyne Jones breathing fresh life into the visitors as they desperately
pressed in search of a late leveller.