PETER CROUCH stepped off the bench to net in his fourth consecutive game on Saturday afternoon and in the process secure maximum spoils for his side against in-form Hull City.
The 34-year old striker, who recently penned a two-year contract extension, met fellow substitute Charlie Adam’s deep ball forward and looped a stunning header over Scotland international ‘keeper Allan McGregor to seal the victory.
The three points were no less than Mark Hughes’ side had deserved having dominated the encounter at the Britannia Stadium from start to finish.
Referee Neil Swarwbrick should have handed the hosts a penalty when Phil Bardsley was challenged from behind inside the 18-yard box, whilst the impressive Adam twice went agonisingly close from distance.
Steve Bruce would have been hoping his side could hold on and see the game through with just 20 minutes remaining, only for Crouch to deliver the good late on and inflict a first defeat in four upon the Tigers.
Buoyed by a return of seven points from their previous three league fixtures, Tigers boss Bruce signalled his intentions of prolonging their unbeaten run prior to kick-off.
The former Manchester United teammate of opposite number Hughes, Bruce fielded a back five whilst also surprisingly dropping January acquisition Dame N’Doye, who had netted in their two recent triumphs.
There were no such surprises in Hughes’ selection as the Welshman opted to name the same eleven that had claimed a 2-1 away victory at Aston Villa seven days earlier.
Following a slightly nervous opening to the game the hosts eventually got in their stride and begun to dictate to the tempo of the game as well as holding a far greater share of possession.
Victor Moses, the stoppage time match-winner against the Villans, was lively out on the left and his pace and trickery with the ball at his feet caused the Hull rearguard numerous problems.
The Nigerian’s set-piece deliveries were equally as impressive, and on two occasions he picked out unmarked teammates in the danger zone only for a Tigers defender to make crucial goal-saving blocks.
Stephen Ireland failed to make the required connection with another Moses delivery when he will have felt aggrieved not to have tested Allan McGregor more seriously than to bundle an effort into his palms.
Dutch international Pieters appeared to have been upended inside the 6-yard box just as he looked set to pull the trigger, though frustratingly for him and his teammates, the referee waved play on.
At the other end, Hull’s only notable attempt culminated in Sone Aluko flicking the all past Philipp Wollscheid, and then clipping the ball wide of the post from an acute angle – although Phil Bardsley was on the line to clear any impending danger.
Jonathan Walters, who occupied the right wing spot throughout the clash, met another teasing Moses delivery, glanced it past McGregor but Maynor Figueroa was well positioned on the line to save his side.
A knock to Stephen Ireland during the opening 45 minutes resulted in Hughes introducing Scottish international Adam at the break, and he did his hopes of forcing his way back into the starting eleven next week absolutely no harm with a superb cameo display.
The former Liverpool midfielder’s tenaciousness and creativity on the ball added another dimension to the Potters’ slick play, and he twice went close within 15 minutes of his arrival to breaking the deadlock.
Firstly, a storming run through the middle of the pitch ended with him firing a rasping effort inches wide of the post, whilst he went even closer soon after with a free-kick that clipped the outside of the post with his international compatriot McGregor beaten.
The home side were bossing the action, restricting the visitors to absolutely nothing in terms of forays forward, but for all of the possession there initially appeared to have been no way through a rugged and determined defence.
Moses did his utmost to create opportunities for his teammates inside the penalty area, but on several occasions his final ball surprisingly let him down – and it was the same story for Pieters, who was equally as menacing on the left.
The decisive moments of the match occurred just 20 minutes from time when Crouch, who had scored in the recent fixtures against Newcastle United, Manchester City and Blackburn was introduced to the action.
The former England international’s first action proved to be the most important of the entire afternoon.
Adam delivered a trademark delivery from just inside the Hull half, Crouch leaped above his marker and in fine style guided the ball into the far corner to send the home supporters into delirium.
Not only was that the striker’s ninth goal of the campaign, but it also saw him equal Alan Shearer’s Premier League record of 46 headed goals.
Hull threw everything they could at Stoke during the final exchanges in a bid to salvage an undeserved point from with fixture, with the likes of N’Doye, and Stephen Quinn both being thrust into the action.
There was very nearly late drama when Paul McShane found himself free on goal on the right hand side of the 6-yard box but Marc Wilson made a crucial intervention to deny the Irish defender, before Begovic clawed a long punt forward from under his own crossbar.