TEN-MAN Stoke City staged a brave second half fight-back against in-form Southampton but it sadly proved to be in vain as in-form striker Graziano Pelle delivered a killer blow in the final minute of normal time.
The Italian striker grabbed his second goal of the evening in slightly fortuitous fashion after defender Erik Pieters had inadvertently flicked the ball straight into his path, just seconds after substitute Peter Crouch was harshly dismissed for two late yellow cards.
The Potters had looked on course to take the game to extra-time after Mame Diouf had levelled for his side nine minutes earlier, following Steven Nzonzi’s sublime strike just three minutes after the half-time interval.
Goals from Pelle and Shane Long prior to the break had the visitors in control of the tie, but they were made to work for their spot in the last eight of the competition by a spirited second half showing from Mark Hughes' side.
The inclusion of Spanish international Bojan in the starting eleven was one of three changes made to the side by the Welshman prior to kick-off.
The former Barcelona protégé was included at the expense of Charlie Adam in the advanced midfield role, whilst Senegalese international Diouf and Marko Arnautovic were also handed starts.
Diouf came in to replace former Southampton man Crouch up front, with Austrian maverick Arnautovic coming in for the absent Victor Moses.
The Saints made four changes of their own – with last Saturday’s match-winner Sadio Mane one of the players not included in Ronald Koeman’s matchday squad.
As proved to be the case at St Mary’s four days earlier, the Saints proved to be too hot to handle during the initial 30 minutes of action – racing into a two-goal lead courtesy of two superb goals for very different reasons.
Firstly, Pelle, who has adjusted to life in England with ease following his summer switch from the Netherlands, curled home an audacious effort from 25-yards just three minutes in, whilst Long rounded off a superb passage of play with real aplomb to double the lead.
Before the hosts had even settled, the tie looked as though it could be beyond their reach – particularly when Pelle again manoeuvred enough space for himself inside the penalty box to forge a sight at goal. Thankfully, his strike wasn’t quite up to his usual standards.
At the other end, with the home side’s first effort on target, Jonathan Walters thought he had halved the deficit with a thumping effort that bounced over the line via the underside of the crossbar, only for the linesman to flag for offside.
The start of the second period heralded a far brighter showing from the home side, and they managed to drag themselves back into the game courtesy of a wonderful individual effort from Nzonzi, who rifled the ball into the bottom corner from 25-yards.
A bombardment on the Southampton penalty area caused real concern to Koeman and his side, but despite the best attempts of Ryan Shawcross and Marc Wilson, both of whom went agonisingly close, the visitors managed to hold on.
Asmir Begovic twice came to the Potters’ rescue, denying Morgan Schneiderlin, who was lucky to still be on the field following a horrific lunge on Walters in the first half, and then making an even better point-blank save to thwart Victor Wanyama.
Hughes thrust Charlie Adam and Crouch on in attempt to restore parity late on with both players leaving impressions upon the game for very different reasons.
Adam wreaked havoc amongst the Saints backline with his trademark deliveries from set-pieces, with no fewer than five consecutive corners from the Scotsman finally having the desired effect on the clash when Diouf latched onto a deep corner to level matters in the 81st minute.
Just as Stoke looked to turn the screw into the shell-shocked visitors referee Lee Mason issued two dubious yellow cards to crouch to hand the advantage back over to the Saints, and from the resulting free-kick, Pelle slammed home the match-winning strike from 6-yards.
A cruel end to a dramatic 90 minutes of action at the Britannia Stadium for Hughes and his troops. Now to build upon that spirited second half showing when in-form West Ham United ride into town this coming Saturday in the Barclays Premier League