STOKE CITY let slip a two-goal advantage against West Ham United on Saturday afternoon to surrender maximum points against the in-form Hammers.
Goals either side of the interval from on loan Chelsea forward Victor Moses and Senegalese striker Mame Diouf fired the hosts into the driving seat before Sam Allardyce’s side staged an undeserved second half comeback.
A reckless challenge from midfielder Alex Song during the build-up to the visitors’ first goal from Enner Valencia caused controversy, but there was no arguing the second – a well taken effort from Stewart Downing 17 minutes from time.
Mark Hughes will feel aggrieved that his side weren’t two or three goals better off before conceding the second, with Diouf, Moses and the impressive Jonathan Walters all going agonisingly close.
The absence of both Peter Crouch and Phil Bardsley, through suspension, left the City boss, who was celebrating his 51st birthday, with plenty to ponder ahead of kick-off.
The likelihood of Diouf starting up front was always high, but the inclusion of Steve Sidwell in the starting eleven for the first time at home in the league was far more of a surprise.
The former Fulham man came in as a replacement for Bardsley to line up alongside Steven Nzonzi at the heart of midfield, with American Cameron dropping back to fill the void at full-back.
The rest of the eleven remained the same from Wednesday evening with Bojan retaining his spot in the team whilst Walters did enough last time out to keep hold on his position out wide.
The Hammers were without influential striker Diafra Sakho, who had netted in each of his first six top-flight starts this season, and so called up fellow summer recruit Cheikhou Kouyate in his absence.
Buoyed by an impressive second half showing in the midweek Capital One Cup clash against Southampton, the Potters were able to build-upon that with a quite superb first 45 minutes against the side who came into the clash on the back of three successive league triumphs.
Walters cut a real imposing figure on the right with his tenaciousness and work-ethic, whilst the pure pace and trickery of Moses on the opposite flank proved to be equally as menacing to the visitors.
Former Ipswich defender Aaron Cresswell was being taught a harsh Premier League lesson by ex-Tractor Boy Walters, especially during the opening exchanges of the lively encounter.
Firstly, he cleverly outmuscled the young defender to allow Bojan’s cross-field ball to find the feet of Cameron – whose sublime delivery flew inches beyond the outstretched foot of Diouf inside the 6-yard box.
Moses hammered an effort wide of goal from distance after cutting isde of Carl Jenkinson on the edge of the penalty area, before Bojan, who was named as the sponsor’s man of the match, saw a thumping effort blocked by James Collins.
The former Barcelona man was enjoying by far his most productive outing for the Club, and he left the supporters inside the stadium purring when he let rip an outstanding ball across the 6-yard box that narrowly evaded both Diouf and Walters.
The Spaniards inventiveness was again evident moments later when he played an intricate one-two with Cameron and teed up Moses – only for the Nigerian’s effort to sail harmlessly wide of Adrian’s post.
At the other end a wayward Downing free-kick proved to be the best the Hammers could conjure up, just two minutes before a breakthrough was finally made by the home side.
Bojan played a part, as did Diouf, but it was Moses who slid home his first goal for the Club in slightly fortuitous circumstances – after his initial effort had rebound straight back into his path via the Hammers ‘keeper.
There was absolutely no denying that the goal was fully deserved, and if anything Hughes will have felt frustrated that his side were about to go into the interval with just Moses’ solitary effort to show for their efforts.
Well, that one goal advantage should have been two when Cameron found Diouf inside the penalty box – he expertly turned but wasn’t able to beat the approaching Adrian, who superbly blocked his goal-bound strike.
Allardyce was left with no option but to switch things around during the break in a bid to rejuvenate his side, who were struggling to contain the much-improved Potters.
He introduced Carlton Cole at the expense of Morgan Amalfitano, and truth be told, he gave the City defenders far more problems during the opening 15 minutes of the second period than the former West Brom man had in the entire opening half.
His power and strength added a new dimension to the West Ham attack, yet for all of his efforts in trying to unsettle Shawcross and company, it was Diouf who atoned for his first half miss with a powerful header to double the Stoke lead.
Walters received plaudits for his part in the goal after outmuscling Jenkinson and picking the striker out with an inch-perfect delivery from the right hand side of the 18-yard box.
The three points could have been firmly secured in the bag in the moments which followed Diouf’s second in as many games, with Moses bursting past Cresswell, and curling a delightful effort just wide of the post.
Whilst those missed opportunities never at all seemed likely to come back to haunt the hosts, that soon changed when the lead was halved by Valencia, who rounded off a superb counter-attack with a clever header into the bottom corner of Begovic’s net.
However, it was Song’s two-footed lunge on Diouf that caused the biggest controversy, with referee Chris Foy incredibly allowing play to continue despite the uncontrolled attempt to win the ball by the former Arsenal midfielder.
13 minutes later, and after Diouf had narrowly missed the target with a thumping 12-yard effort, the visitors had somehow managed to level up the encounter with what was their only other effort on target.
A lack of communication inside the 18-yard box culminated in Valencia picking out Downing, and he fired the ball past three defenders and into the back of the net, despite the attempts of Begovic to keep his strike out.
Hughes responded by thrusting Charlie Adam onto the field ten minutes from time, after Allardyce had made another change of his own by introducing Kevin Nolan into the fray – with Mark Noble the player to make way.
Both sides pressed in search of a late winner but it was the home side who thought they had won it at the death when Cameron bundled an effort seemingly towards the bottom corner of the net only for Adrian to somehow fingertip the ball around the post.