IT WAS a case of third time lucky for Marko Arnautovic as he struck home a crucial last gasp leveller against West Ham United to salvage his side a thoroughly deserved point at the Boleyn Ground on Saturday afternoon.
The Austrian maverick was a constant thorn in the side of the Hammers backline and twice thought he had pegged the hosts back with clinically taken finishes only for the linesman to flag for offside on each occasion.
Incredibly, and undeservedly, It had looked like the three points would be claimed by the hosts courtesy of Aaron Cresswell’s superb sixth minute free-kick which curled into the top right hand corner of the net from 25-yards.
As well as being denied by the officials twice in the second half, lively substitute Mame Diouf saw a rasping header somehow stay out of goal after cannoning across the line having initially rattled the post.
At that point you feared the worse, but true to the character of Hughes’ troops, they battled until the very end and finally reaped their rewards thanks to Arnautovic, who beat two men and thumped a wonderful effort beyond the reach of Adrian and into the far corner of the net right at the death.
The inclusion of the former Werder Bremen wide-man was one of two changes Hughes made to his starting eleven as he looked to galvanise his troops having seen them suffer a trio of defeats in recent weeks.
Arnautovic replaced Diouf out wide whilst on-loan Chelsea forward Victor Moses was also recalled having been forced to sit out last weekend’s trip to Stamford Bridge because of Premier League rules.
As Premier League fixtures go, this was arguably one of the more low-key encounters being played out across the country this weekend, but tell that to any Stoke or West Ham supporter, each of whom would have had their sights set on eighth spot.
Sam Allardyce’s side capitalised on some naïveté on Stoke’s part in the reverse fixture at the Britannia Stadium last autumn, clawing their way back from two goals down in a game that should have well and truly been out of their reach.
Hughes would have challenged his players to repeat their first-half heroics from that particular afternoon down this time round, whilst Allardyce could have told his players in to uncertain terms, that a much brighter start would be needed if they were to claim all three points.
As it panned out, the big man’s pre-match words had the more desirable affect, as his players gave themselves an early lead before the Potters had managed to get a foothold on proceedings.
An uncharacteristically rash challenge from the solid Glenn Whelan left referee Roger East with no option but to hand the home side a free-kick just outside the penalty area.
In the same net that Jermaine Pennant curled home the match-winner last season, Cresswell stepped up and almost replicated that effort with a terrific strike of his own to stun the Stoke supporters housed behind the goal.
There was a brief period of uncomfortableness for Stoke as the Hammers looked to seize upon their advantage and turn the screw into the visitors, who came into this game on the back of three successive league defeats.
Once Ryan Shawcross and co had managed to hold off a ten-minute spell of West Ham pressure, the game turned and all of a sudden it was Hughes’ side who were asking the vast majority of the questions to the Hammers, despite struggling to create any serious sights at goal.
Republic of Ireland international Walters saw a goal-bound effort blocked by the stomach of James Collins following a clever lay-off from Arnautovic, whilst Charlie Adam fizzed a long range effort just over the bar from a set-piece.
The Scot, who netted what many have described as the best Premier League goal of all time six days earlier, was up to his tricks again, testing the concentration of ‘keeper Adrian with several more efforts from distance.
For all intent and purpose there was no way through for the Potters prior to the break, and having lost the services of one of the main attacking focal points, Victor Moses, to injury, you did wonder whether an avenue back into the game would be forthcoming.
Cue Diouf… for the Senegalese man arrived on to the scene and looked determined to help his side recover from a losing position, and his pace and cleverness on the ball created a number of openings during the initial exchanges of the second period.
The travelling 1700 or so Stokies were left bemused by the linesman’s decision to deny Arnautovic a seemingly good equaliser from 12-yards, but on reflection, and with the benefit of a television replay, they would have to concur that the official’s decision was in fact, correct.
Still, wave after wave of Stoke attack pegged the struggling home side back, much to the discontent of the Hammers supporters, who grew even more frustrated when Allardyce replaced the impressive Barcelona loanee Alex Song with Kevin Nolan.
Hughes urged his side forward at every available opportunity, even replacing Whelan with the more attack-minded Ireland, who was dropped from the starting eleven prior to kick-off, midway through the second period.
Shortly after the former Manchester City man’s introduction, he fired across a scintillating ball and Diouf somehow powered a thunderous header past Adrian, but watched with his head in his hands as the ball escaped the jaws of the goalmouth after hitting the post.
Begovic, a relative bystander for the vast majority of the afternoon, displayed his quality with a superb save down to his left seven minutes from time to deny the pacy Cheikhou Kouyate, who looked to round off a classic counter-attack.
As the minutes and seconds wore on, you could sense the nervousness amongst the home side as they looked to hold on to their narrow advantage, but there was no greater sigh of relief inside the stadium than when the linesman again chalked off another Arnautovic goal after he strayed into an offside position to meet Ireland’s squared pass four minutes from time.
Even Shawcross was thrust up front in one final bid to salvage something from the game deep into stoppage time, and it proved to be a masterstroke as he flicked the ball out wide to Arnautovic, who skipped past two players and launched an unstoppable effort into the far corner of the net to send the travelling fans into absolute delirium.