STOKE CITY secured a spot in the last eight of the Capital Cup in the most dramatic fashion against Championship side Birmingham at St Andrews on Tuesday evening.
The Potters looked to be well on course for a spot in Wednesday’s Quarter-Final draw thanks to goals from Oussama Assaidi, Peter Crouch and Marko Arnauotivcic.
However, a late, late double from Blues forward Peter Lovenkrands took the tie into extra-time, with Tom Adeyemi’s seemingly consolation strike in the first-half proving to be more valuable than first thought.
Kenwyne Jones’ strike four minutes into extra-time re-established the visitors lead, but once again Lee Clarke’s side showed great character by netting in the 118th minute to take the tie to penalties.
Thankfully, it was a lot more routine for the visitors from the spot, as strikes from Jones, Ryan Shawcross, Marc Muniesa and Steven Nzonzi secured a 4-2 victory.
As expected Mark Hughes made a number of changes to his starting line-up for the encounter, but was still able to field a side that had vast amounts of top-flight experience and quality in abundance.
In total, five changes were made from the team that ran Premier League champions Manchester United so close at Old Trafford three days earlier.
Thomas Sorensen deputised for Asmir Begovic in goal, Muniesa and Marc Wilson were included at the back, whilst Jermaine Pennant and Assaidi were handed roles on the flanks, supplying the ammunition for lone striker Crouch.
Home supporters expecting anything other than an early Stoke onslaught were to be left disappointed as the Potters pressed the Blues back deep into their own penalty area during the initial proceedings.
Assaidi and Arnautovic were making a nuisance of themselves in attacking areas, whilst Honduran star Palacios continued from where he left off at Old Trafford – running the show from the deep midfield position.
The army of around 3,000 visiting supporters didn’t have to wait long to break into fine voice as Assaidi thumped home an absolute thunderbolt just ten minutes in to give the side the advantage they deserved for such a confident opening.
The Moroccan ace powered home an unstoppable effort from 25-yards, via the bottom off the crossbar, after latching onto a delightful back-heel from former FC Barcelona youngster Muniesa.
Hughes’ side continued in the ascendency with Assaidi in-particular staking a claim for a starting role against in-form Southampton at the weekend, with a delightful, and impactful, showing on the wing.
He was again instrumental in the Potters next meaningful surge forward, having used his trickery and pace to beat three Birmingham defenders before laying the ball across the 18-yard box to Arnautovic, only for his finish to surprisingly let him down.
For all of Stoke’s dominance, they were severely punished half an hour into the game as a classic Blues counter-attack culminated in a leveller for the hosts, somewhat against the run of play.
A long and hopeful punt forward from Dan Burn was flicked on by Nicola Zigic, Lee Novak took one touch and played the ball through to Adeyemi who dispatched with sheer quality, sending Sorensen the wrong way.
Normality resumed in the immediate aftermath of the goal however, with the visitors looking far likelier to add to their tally, with both Palacios and Robert Huth going close to hitting the back of the net from distance.
Birmingham’s task of containing the dominant visitors was difficult enough, but it was made doubly as tough on the stroke of half-time when midfielder Elliot was dismissed for an off the ball incident involving Assaidi.
The start of the second period produced more of the same with the visitors dominating the midfield areas and displaying more of a cutting edge in their moves forward.
Crouch had already seen one header saved well by Colin Doyle in the Birmingham goal by the time he was handed a second opportunity by Assaidi, only this time he was able to glance the ball back across goal and into the far corner of the net to send the travelling supporters into delirium.
From this position there appeared to have been no way back for the despondent hosts, and by the time Arnautovic had made it three, with a stunning finish from 18-yards, it seemed only a matter of time until the Potters rubber-stamped their spot in the last eight.
In fact, Crouch went within a whisker of adding to his side’s tally with an audacious bicycle kick that cannoned back off the bar, before Nzonzi hammered an effort wide of goal following a clever ball into his path from substitute Stephen Ireland.
With Saturday’s game against the Saints in mind, it came as no surprise to see both Crouch and Arnautovic withdrawn from their staring roles, as Hughes looked for his side to shut up shop and complete a thoroughly professional job.
What happened during the final eight minutes of the game however certainly wasn’t in the City boss’ script, or anybody else’s for that matter.
Firstly, Lovenkrands tapped into an empty net to test the nerves of the dominant visitors, before completing the most unwelcome of comebacks with another close range effort four minutes into stoppage time.
The goal breathed life into the hopes of the home supporters that they could pull off the biggest of cup shocks at St Andrews.
A stern talking to from Hughes prior to the start of extra-time seemed to lift the spirits of his disheartened troops as they bagged a fourth goal of the night thanks to Trinidad and Tobago ace Jones.
The powerful striker latched on to a scintillating ball through from Ireland, calmly rounded the ‘keeper and slotted neatly into an empty net to restore his side’s advantage, and break the hearts of the Blues supporters housed behind the goal.
Further chances came and went for Hughes’ side as they looked to finish the hosts off, but with each chance that was spurned, the belief within the Birmingham camp that they could still prolong the evening’s events grew stronger.
And so it proved as another chapter in an already impressive story was written two minutes from time thanks to substitute Olly Lee, who hammered home an unstoppable effort from the edge of the area after the Potters back-line failed to clear their lines.
So to penalty kicks...
0-0 / Hancox hits the bar
1-0 / Jones slots home
1-0 / Reilly hammers wide of goal
2-0 / Shawcross doubles Stoke’s advantage
2-1 / Lee nets the first from the spot for Birmingham
3-1 / Muniesa exquisitely nets his spot kick
3-2 / Lovenkrands keeps the Blues in it
4-2 / Nzonzi wins it with a superbly executed penalty into the bottom corner