MARK MUNIESA’S clinically taken brace secured Stoke City a safe passage through to the last 16 of this season’s Capital One Cup on Tuesday evening at the expense of last season’s runners up Sunderland.
The Spanish under 21 international netted his first goals for the Club either side of the half-time interval as the Potters came from behind to stun their Premier League rivals at the Stadium of Light.
Jozy Altidore had seemingly put the hosts on course for progression in the competition that they reached the final in earlier this year, before Muniesa levelled matters with a thumping effort on the half hour mark.
The Potters spurned a number of opportunities to take the lead as they pressurised the Black Cats rear-guard, but it was Muniesa who proved to be the hero 20 minutes from time – letting rip an absolute thunderbolt that flew into the roof of the net.
The former Barcelona youngster’s inclusion was one of six changes made by boss Mark Hughes from the team that recorded a well-earned Premier League point against Queens Park Rangers just three days earlier.
Oussama Assaidi was handed his first start since arriving from Liverpool on deadline day, whilst Jack Butland, Robert Huth, Stephen Ireland and Marko Arnautovic were the other players to be brought into the side.
Buoyed by their hugely improved performances on the road throughout 2014, the Potters continued to display their counter-attacking qualities during a hugely dominant first 45 minutes in the North East.
Ironically it was the home side who managed to open the evening’s scoring with a sublimely taken effort from American international Altidore 15 minutes in – sweeping the ball into the bottom corner of the net from 18-yards after outmuscling Huth.
The Potters weren’t allowing that early setback to deter them from their pre-match plans however, and began to dictate the tempo of the clash with accurate and swift passing through the middle of the field, whilst the pace and power of the forwards always threatened the Sunderland rear-guard.
Assaidi, clearly enjoying his freedom down the left hand side, skipped his way past three Black Cats players five minutes after their opener, but wasn’t able to cap off his superb bursting run with an equally as impressive strike.
The Moroccan was at it again moments later, leaving John O’Shea for dead on the left flank, but his delivery across the box narrowly evaded the oncoming Diouf, who would have undoubtedly netted his third goal of the campaign had he managed to have made contact.
Austrian maverick Arnautovic used his power and acceleration to free himself of Liam Bridcutt 20-yards out, although he wasn’t able to force Costel Pantilimon into a save – lashing his effort well wide of goal.
On the 30 minute mark however parity was restored as Spanish starlet Muniesa linked up superbly well with Assaidi, played a neat one-two and fired home his maiden goal for the Club from an acute angle.
Gus Poyet’s side were struggling to contain the visitors, who were eager to turn the game on its head and take what would have been a deserved lead into the half-time interval.
Assaidi was presented with a glorious chance of doing just that when Bardsley picked him out with a delightful ball across the penalty box, only for the winger to hammer his powerful strike the wrong side of the post.
At the other end, a rare Sunderland surge forward culminated in referee Mike Dean awarding them a free-kick 25-yards out. Adam Johnson, the match winner in last season’s league clash at the Stadium of Light, hit the target, but couldn’t beat Butland.
As the half drew to its conclusion both Nzonzi and Bardsley went agonisingly close to finding the bottom right hand corner of the net from range – only for the ball to drop inches wide on each occasion.
Poyet responded by tinkering with his tactics and thrusting Patrick Van Aanholt into action in a bid to reinvigorate his struggling side, and for a while at least, it appeared to have worked as the home side played with more panache and more creativity.
Butland was forced into two smart saves to firstly deny Altidore from range, before displaying absolutely superb agility to fingertip Will Buckley’s goal-bound effort past the post, with the midfielder appearing to have already been celebrating what he thought was a goal.
Stoke dug in and managed to regain the upper-hand with the pace of Assaidi allowing him to forge an opening for himself, which resulted in Pantilimon responding to his superb strike with an equally as impressive save.
Assaidi was a real thorn in the side of the hosts, and he again went close with a curling effort that flew narrowly wide of the far post after Republic of Ireland international O’Shea had fortuitously diverted his strike off target.
There was nothing O’Shea, nor his Sunderland teammates were able to do to deny Muniesa a second soon after though as he picked up a deep Charlie Adam corner, took three touches into the box and rifled home a thunderous effort into the roof of the net to send the travelling 400 Stokies housed in the upper echelons of the stand behind the opposite goal into absolute delirium.
Chants of ‘Wembley’ soon began to be heard from the travelling contingent as their side began to frustrate the hosts, who were desperately trying to find themselves a leveller and prolong the encounter into an additional 30 minutes of extra-time.
As it was, it was the Potters who went closest to adding to their tally with Arnautovic volleying over from 8-yards after being picked out by the superb Muniesa, before substitute Victor Moses was thwarted by the Sunderland ‘keeper in stoppage time.
All that awaits the side now is Wednesday night’s draw, where you can be certain that Hughes and his players will be hoping for a favourable home draw. Either way, the side have shown that under the stewardship of the Welshman they are capable of mixing with the very best, both at home and on the road.