STOKE CITY were forced to settle for a point after surrendering a two-goal half-time lead against second place Leicester City at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Potters looked to be on course for their first three-point haul of the campaign thanks to strikes from Bojan and Jonathan Walters prior to the interval, before the visitors gallantly fought back to preserve their unbeaten status.
Marko Arnautovic, the architect of Bojan’s 13th minute opener, clumsily upended Danny Drinkwater inside the 18-yard box just five minutes after the break, allowing the Foxes’ leading scorer Riyad Mahrez to half the deficit.
Controversy reined in North Staffordshire 20 minutes from time, not for the first time this season, when referee Andre Marriner somehow waved play on after Walters was fouled inside the Leicester half, before a classic counter attack culminated in the visitors levelling matters.
A long punt forward from Wes Morgan was flicked on by substitute Leonardo Ulloa and Jamie Vardy raced through, held off the determined Erik Pieters and guided the ball into the far corner of the net, leaving his England teammate Jack Butland helpless.
Both sides fashioned late opportunities to win the game with United States international Geoff Cameron glancing a header agonisingly wide of the post from 8-yards, before Vardy curled a last-gasp effort wide of the post from 20-yards.
The afternoon had started in positive fashion when Mark Hughes handed Bojan his first league start in almost eight months after deeming the former Barcelona man fit enough to feature following his long-term injury lay-off.
His inclusion was one of four changes made to the side by the Welshman, who also opted to recall Walters and his Republic of Ireland compatriot Marc Wilson as well as the fit again Glen Johnson, who sat out the defeat at Arsenal seven days earlier.
Stoke, languishing in the bottom three, looked the side perched in second place, and not Leicester, during the opening exchanges, as the side displayed tremendous ability on the ball and hassled and harried Claudio Ranieri’s men into a series of mistakes.
It was a moment of pure genius from Arnautovic that got the hosts off to a flyer, as he left former Potters defender Ritchie de Laet for dead on the left flank, cut inside and delivered a delicious ball through to Bojan, who confidently stroked home his first top-flight goal since netting against the Foxes at the King Power Stadium at the turn of the year.
The goal lifted everybody inside the stadium and it came as no surprise when the lead was doubled some 20 minutes later.
This time the Foxes were their own worst enemy as Robert Huth, making his first return to North Staffordshire since departing in the summer, left a bouncing ball for Wes Morgan to deal with, he misplaced his pass back to Kasper Schmeichel and Walters raced through to make it 2-0.
Stoke were bouncing, Leicester were rocking.
A third goal would undoubtedly have killed off the visitors prior to the break, and it very nearly came when Cameron teased both Walters and Marco van Ginkel with a tempting delivery across the goalmouth, only for both players to narrowly fail to make contact with it.
At the other end, the visitors fashioned their first real chance of the afternoon when the backline allowed too much time to Drinkwater, who burst forward and let rip and powerful strike that deflected just wide of the upright.
Jack Butland, a relative bystander for the majority of the half, produced an outstanding one-handed save to deny N’Golo Kante ten minutes before the break, with the industrious midfielder turning in delight in anticipation of his strike sailing into the back of the net.
With nothing to lose the visitors were throwing everything forward, in almost identical fashion to last weekend’s remarkable comeback against Midlands rivals Aston Villa.
Both de Laet and Shinji Okazaki spurned chances to peg the hosts back during the final few minutes of the half as Leicester ended the opening period on positive fashion. Still, it was the home side two goals to the good and firmly on course for maximum points.
The break probably came at the wrong time for Ranieri’s men as they started the second period on the back foot, but almost out of nowhere they were gifted an opportunity to drag themselves back into the encounter when Arnautovic fell into the back of Drinkwater marginally inside the penalty area.
Mahrez, who had scored four in his previous five outings, showed confidence to drill the ball into the bottom corner and send the travelling 2,000 plus Foxes fans into raptures in the Marston’s Pedigree Stand.
Stoke managed to ride out an expected Leicester storm over the next ten minutes or so, but were then wasteful in front of goal at the other end as van Ginkel fired straight at Kasper Schmeichel from 20-yards and Shaqiri sliced harmlessly over after turning on a sixpence on the edge of the ‘D’.
Leicester always looked dangerous on the break, with the pace of Vardy, Jeff Schlupp and Mahrez a constant threat to the City backline.
That was evident when Vardy latched on to Gokhan Inler’s clever ball down the right, cut inside of Cameron and forced Butland into a good save down to his left, before Glenn Whelan, arguably Stoke’s man of the match, doing just enough to put off Drinkwater, who lashed the rebound over.
Both managers tinkered with their personnel in a bid to give their side the ascendency during the final 20 minutes of the encounter, and whilst Stephen Ireland, Peter Crouch and Peter Odemwingie added fresh life to the home side it was Ranieri’s decision to introduce Ulloa which had the biggest effect on the outcome of the game.
The Argentinean, who netted the winner in last season’s clash in the Potteries, glanced a long ball forward straight into the path of Vardy, who raced past Pieters and dinked the ball over the outstretched Butland to tie the game up.
Ranieri, his players and the visiting supporters sensed a repeat of the 3-2 comeback triumph over Villa seven days earlier. Stoke had to stand firm and ensure that didn’t happen.
They did manage to do that thanks to some brave and courageous defending from Wilson and Cameron, but there were opportunities to win the game themselves – none more so than when Cameron leaped to meet Shaqiri’s centre and nodded agonisingly wide of the post.
Right at the death, five minutes into additional time, Vardy thumped a curling effort from distance past the fingertips of Butland, but thankfully wide of the post.
A third point of the season for the Potters, two points undoubtedly lost, but plenty of positives for Hughes and his players to take into the forthcoming encounters against Fulham, in the Capital One Cup, and Bournemouth, in the top-flight, next Saturday.