STOKE CITY cruised into Round 4 of the Capital One Cup on Wednesday night as they brushed aside League One side Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park.
Stephen Ireland’s first goal in almost two years and a splendid Peter Crouch goal in stoppage time was enough to secure the Potters a spot in the last 16 of the competition following a comfortable victory over their lower league opposition.
The game should have been won by a far bigger margin though with Jonathan Walters spurning two golden opportunities of putting the game beyond the reach of Rovers prior to Crouch’s sublime finish late on.
There were certainly no doubts surrounding Mark Hughes’ ambitions in the competition having named an incredibly strong line-up prior to the game, despite the fact that he made seven changes to the team from Saturday.
As expected, the Welshman, who has lifted the League Cup trophy on three occasions during his illustrious playing career, recalled Thomas Sorensen to the side at the expense of regular starter Asmir Begovic.
There were also places in the side for Spanish Under 21 star Marc Muniesa, winger Jermaine Pennant, Republic of Ireland ace Glenn Whelan and Honduran Wilson Palacios.
Crouch got the nod to start off up-front, with Kenwyne Jones, who bagged a hat-trick against Walsall in the previous round, having to make do for a spot on the bench.
Deadline day signing Stephen Ireland was also handed his first Potters start following two cameo roles against Manchester City and Arsenal, whilst fellow new boy Marko Arnautovic was also included.
In fact it was the talented Austrian who had the first effort at goal just three minutes in, when he attempted an audacious 30-yard strike that drifted just wide of the post, following a fluent move through the pitch.
The Potters, clearly buoyed by their impressive start to the campaign, settled into the game far quicker than their hosts, retaining the ball well and being patient with their play as they looked to forge an avenue through the Rovers backline.
For a side that had suffered an indifferent start to their League One season, Ronnie Moore’s side looked strong at the back – more often than not restricting their Premier League opposition to long range efforts at goal.
However, as the Potters continued to display intricate passages of play it only seemed a matter of time until they opened the scoring.
Ireland had already seen a goal-bound effort blocked by a Rovers defender before firing wide following a superbly timed one-two with Crouch, whilst Robert Huth was the first to test the hands of Owain Fon Williams after leaping highest to meet Pennant’s inviting centre.
A moment of magic from the two Stoke City new boys Arnautovic and Ireland culminated in an inevitable opener midway through the first half as Stoke’s superiority was finally rewarded.
Ireland, who ran the hosts ragged for parent Club Aston Villa at the same stage of the competition last year, latched on to a delightful ball through from Arnautovic and confidently swept the ball beyond Williams and into the back of the net.
It wasn’t until the 30-minute mark that Rovers recorded their first attempt at goal, and even when that did come, it was a routine save for Sorensen to deny a half-hearted strike from Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro.
That brief moment of pressure proved to be as nervy as it got for Stoke as they maintained their dominance, looking the only team likely to add to the scoreline.
Ireland was cutting a real imposing figure in the middle of the pitch, impressing with his style and substance, whilst Palacios was showing huge signs of encouragement in a more defensive role, starting wave after wave of attacks with his intelligent balls through the middle.
The on-loan Villa star had an opportunity of doubling his, and his side’s tally for the evening five minutes after the half-time interval after cleverly being freed by Crouch, however, he took too long deciding whether to shoot or free Arnautovic, allowing defender Ashley Taylor to clear the ball away from danger.
Tranmere very nearly made the visitors pay for their lack of cutting edge in front of goal when Akpa Akpro suddenly found himself through on goal on the our mark, but thankfully for Stoke his finish wasn’t quite as impressive as his name.
Hughes thrust Oussama Assaidi into the firing line midway through the second half, at the expense of the impressive Ireland, as the Welshman looked to utilise the pace of the on-loan Liverpool forward in a bid to kill off the game.
Rovers were enjoying their best spell in the game as the clock ticked towards the 70-minute mark, with Chris Atkinson going agonisingly close to levelling matters with a thumping effort that flew inches wide of Sorensen’s post.
Undoubtedly, the League Two side were growing into the game as the second period wore on, and began to express more freedom in their movement, looking to grab themselves what would have been in truth a totally undeserved equaliser.
Hughes responded by freshening up his side – introducing both Walters and Matthew Etherington from the bench, with Arnautovic and Pennant the two players asked to make way.
The changes ignited fresh life into Stoke with Assaidi doing well to beat two men down the left flank before floating across a stunning ball that was met by the head of Walters, only for his effort to land on top of the net, rather than in the back of it.
The Republic of Ireland ace went even closer two minutes later after being freed through on goal, but again his finish let him down as he dinked the ball beyond both the ‘keeper and the post.
There were no such problems for England international Crouch however, as he dispatched stunningly from 8-yards deep into stoppage time after Walters had brilliantly picked out the forward with a clever ball across the Rovers backline.