STOKE CITY were cruelly denied of a deserved three points against Everton on New Year’s Day as England international Leighton Baines struck home a stoppage time penalty to earn the Toffees a point.
The Potters looked to be firmly on course to secure a fourth consecutive home victory thanks to Oussama Assaidi’s fourth goal of the campaign shortly after the half-time interval.
However, a mistimed challenge from substitute Jermaine Pennant presented Baines with a glorious opportunity to level matters for his side, and he calmly dispatched his spot-kick to beat debutant Jack Butland and break the hearts of the home side.
Truth be told, the result was arguably a fair reflection of the game with Roberto Martinez’s side ruing the woodwork for denying Kevin Mirallas on two separate occasions prior to the break.
That said, several opportunities came and went for the hosts too, with both Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam feeling aggrieved not to have found themselves on the score-sheet when a second goal would have undoubtedly killed off the Champions League hopefuls.
Mark Hughes made three changes to his starting line-up prior to kick-off as he looked to guide his side to victory in the opening game of the New Year.
Marc Wilson and Glenn Whelan both returned to the side having served one-match suspensions against Tottenham last time out, whilst Adam was preferred to Stephen Ireland in the attacking midfield role.
Wilson replaced Andy Wilkinson at the back after he sustained a knock in London three days earlier and Whelan was brought back into the eleven at the expense of Wilson Palacios.
Everton were able to call upon the services of influential defender Baines after he returned from a broken toe recently, but Roberto Martinez did have other problems amongst his backline with three players absent.
Phil Jagielka, Syvain Distin and John Heitinga were all ruled out through injury, meaning the Toffees central defensive partnership consisted of youngster John Stones and former Wigan ace Antolin Alcaraz.
That makeshift partnership looked far from steady during the initial proceedings with the hosts causing all sorts of problems for Roberto Martinez’s side.
Liverpool loanee Assaidi was using his trickery and pace on the left flank, whilst the recalled Adam was the first player to test the ‘keeper with a deflected effort from 15-yards just ten minutes in.
At the other end, a deep centre from England international Baines was met by the head of Gareth Barry, but he was unable to divert his effort goal-wards, leaving Thomas Sorensen untroubled.
A neat passage of play then culminated in Assaidi forcing Tim Howard into a superb save at his near post, however, play was held up for an apparent foul from Adam on Stones in the build up to the Moroccan’s effort.
Geoff Cameron, who resumed his duties in a more familiar right-back role, delivered a teasing ball across goal as the Potters continued in the ascendency, only for Crouch to glance his header wide of goal from 6-yards.
As the half wore on Adam was becoming more and more influential, using his array of passing qualities, and cleverness on the ball to create numerous opportunities for his side to open the deadlock.
Unfortunately, each half opportunity that came Stoke’s way wasn’t capitalised upon, and that was very nearly punished at the other end as out of nothing, Belgian international Kevin Mirallas hammered a thumping effort onto the bar from 35-yards.
That effort proved to be brief respite for the Everton backline though, who remained under siege thereafter with both Assaidi and Shawcross going close to breaking the deadlock with efforts from inside the penalty area.
There was always the worry that the visitors would forge opportunities for themselves however, and that proved to be the case during the final moments of the opening 45 minutes of action.
Mirallas danced down the left flank, and delivered a delightful ball straight into the path of Ross Barkley, who diverted his effort inches over the bar with a clever first time strike.
The talented Belgian was at it again moments later with another audacious effort from 35-yards, yet with Sorensen beaten, the Dane was once again grateful to his woodwork for coming to his side’s rescue.
That proved to be the final incident of the half, and the final incident for Sorensen himself, who was forced off at the break with apparent Achilles damage.
His departure paved the way for a Premier League debut for England international Butland, who arrived at the Britannia Stadium from Birmingham City during the winter transfer window twelve months ago.
Butland's first action was to join the majority of the near 26,000 supporters in attendance in celebrating the opening goal of the game, just four minutes after the re-start.
Assaidi, who has already bagged three fabulous goals this term, reacted quickest to latch on to a free ball 20-yards out and thumped another effort beyond the outstretched Tim Howard and into the bottom corner of the net.
Crouch and Assaidi both went close to adding to the Potters tally, but both were thwarted by a combination of good defending and solid goalkeeping from American international Howard.
Erik Pieters produced two superb last ditch interventions to deny firstly Barkley, and then Mirallas, as the visitors began to play with the composure and quality that has seen them challenge for a top four spot.
Both managers made changes – with Pennant and Palacios being introduced for the hosts and Leon Osman and Steven Naismith joining the action for the visitors.
Everton frantically pushed forward in search of a late leveller, but it all appeared to be in vain as the home side soaked up all of the pressure that was put their way by the desperate Toffees.
Deep into stoppage time though, a clumsy challenge from Pennant on Osman, provided Baines with the chance he needed to rescue the Blues a point.