NINE-MAN Stoke City slipped to a narrow and hugely controversial defeat against Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Potters saw both Ibrahim Afellay and Charlie Adam sent off during a frantic six minute spell midway through the first-half for two dubious offences.
Dutch international Afellay was dismissed in the 25th minute for raising his hand towards Craig Gardner’s face, but the Baggies defender should have also been given his marching orders for the same offence – rather than receiving a caution.
Before the dust had settled referee Michael Oliver was flashing his red card once more – this time towards Scottish midfielder Adam, who was harshly adjudged to have stamped on Craig Dawson after the pair came together for a 50/50 challenge.
Moments before the interval Albion’s club record signing Salomon Rondon netted his first goal in English football to win his side all three points with a cute header from inside the 6-yard box, but it is the Potters who will take most heart out of the encounter following a brave second half showing.
Substitute Marko Arnautovic went close with two long distance strikes, whilst home debutant Xherdan Shaqiri was aggrieved not to have seen an earlier effort hit the back of the net after curling a strike agonisingly wide of the post.
Prior to kick-off Hughes handed the majority of supporters inside the stadium a boost with the news that Shaqiri was included for his home debut, whilst Bojan was named in a Premier League matchday squad for the first time in eight months after overcoming a serious knee injury.
The game, which saw the return of former boss Tony Pulis, was all one-way traffic for the first 20 minutes with Mark Hughes’ side displaying superb composure on the ball, and the patience seemingly needed to find an avenue through a packed out Baggies backline.
Shaqiri, a £12m summer arrival from Inter Milan, was showing glimpses of his undoubted talents, causing the Albion rear-guard no end of problems, and went close to notching the opener with a curling effort that flew just wide of target.
Leading scorer Mame Diouf was proving a nuisance too, with his power and pace enabling him to get the better of Gareth McCauley, although the veteran defender reacted well to clear the ball over the bar after Diouf had chipped ‘keeper Myhill.
The Senegalese international was at it again moments later, leaping highest to meet the impressive Glenn Whelan’s inviting centre but his header from 6-yards flew straight into the palms of former Stoke loanee Myhill.
Butland, a relative bystander for the majority of the afternoon, produced a stunning one handed save to keep the game all square, before the afternoon reached a pivotal and ultimately match-defining period – one in which Oliver took centre stage.
Whilst his decision to dismiss Afellay didn’t come as too big a surprise after he reached towards Gardner, his thinking behind only issuing a yellow card to the Baggies midfielder, for the same offence, left everybody inside the stadium bewildered.
The momentum had already began to switch in Albion’s favour following the decision, but when Adam was sent packing for an apparent stamp on Dawson moments later it seemed pretty inevitable that the Potters were going to be left with too big a mountain to climb during the remaining hour.
Still, the hosts displayed tremendous character to frustrate Pulis’ troops with good defending, and managed to ask questions of their backline, despite the Baggies’ two-man numerical advantage.
That was until Benin-born Rondon capitalised on the one clear-cut opportunity that the visitors had managed to create and finished with real aplomb to give his side an undeserved 1-0 lead right on the stroke of half-time.
You would have expected the visitors to have dictated the tempo of the second 45 minutes and added one or two more goals to their tally, but to Hughes’ players credit, they displayed remarkable character and threatened the Baggies goal on several occasions.
Ultimately, it proved to be in vain, but still it was the Stoke supporters who were on their feet come the full-time whistle paying tribute to the nine players remaining on the pitch.