MARKO ARNAUTOVIC’S superb second half strike secured maximum spoils for the Potters at Villa Park on Saturday as the side chalked up a third successive victory in all competitions.
The Austrian international capped off another fine performance by notching the only goal of the game against struggling Aston Villa as Mark Hughes’ side continued their rise up the league table with a third straight triumph in the West Midlands.
The visitors were full value for their victory having dominated the clash for long periods with match-winner Arnautovic a constant menace to the home side’s backline throughout.
He had already seen one effort questionably chalked off for offside during the opening 45 minutes before he sent the travelling supporters into delirium shortly after the interval with an exquisitely taken effort from 10-yards.
Villa huffed and puffed in a late bid to salvage an undeserved point from the game but the Potters stood firm thanks to some outstanding defensive work from Philipp Wollscheid, Geoff Cameron and Glenn Whelan during the latter stages.
Buoyed by their maiden Premier League triumph of the season seven days earlier, the Potters dominated the opening exchanges of the encounter in the West Midlands.
The power and pace of Marko Arnautovic on the left was a constant nuisance to the Villans rearguard, whilst the intricacy of Bojan and the opportunism of Charlie Adam gave the hosts plenty to ponder early on.
A fluid attack straight down the middle of the pitch four minutes in, which featured six Stoke players, culminated in Jonathan Walters freeing Mame Diouf, who came into the eleven at the expense of the injured Xherdan Shaqiri, down the left but the Senegalese saw his goal-bound strike brilliantly blocked by the outstretched leg of Joleon Lescott.
The visitors continued to display the more creative and ambitious football, with Arnautovic making the most of space down the left flank to cut inside of Alan Hutton, move swiftly inside the penalty area but then hammer his effort well over the bar.
Villa, winless in six top-flight games prior to kick-off, were struggling to keep tabs on then more confident opponents, and were incredibly lucky not to have fallen behind when Adam let rip an audacious effort from inside his own half.
The Scotland international produced a stunning strike – almost identical to the one he pulled off against Chelsea last season – but just as he prepared to turn away in celebration ‘keeper Brad Guzan backtracked and finger-tipped the ball wide of the post.
The travelling 2,600 Potters supporters were making themselves heard in appreciation of their teams efforts on the pitch, and they were duly rewarded with a moment of jubilation when Bojan’s sublime ball into the box was tucked home by Arnautovic, before the linesman flagged for a dubious offside.
The Stoke onslaught continued with the Austrian maverick at the heart of the action once more. This time he whipped a dangerous ball into the back post, Walters leaped highest but wasn’t able to seriously trouble the Villa stopper.
At the other end a rare, and brief, spell of pressure at the end of the first period questioned the Stoke defenders concentration levels, but both Geoff Cameron and Philipp Wollscheid possessed all the answers as they bossed their own box, both in the air and on the ground.
Undoubtedly frustrated by his side’s first-half showing Tim Sherwood made changes during the break, opting to introduce young midfielder Jack Grealish to the action at the expense of former England international Lescott.
The arrival of the 19-year-old meant a change in formation as Sherwood switched from 5-3-2 to a more traditional 4-4-2 line-up although it didn’t quite have the desired effect as Hughes’ troops finally opened the scoring.
The lively Glen Johnson displayed his superb vision by picking out the unmarked Arsnutovic inside the box, the Austrian turned, took one touch and slipped the ball to the ‘keeper’s left and into the back of the net via the post.
Stoke supporters were delirious, Villa’s were despondent.
They were given something to cheer about when Sherwood introduced the talented Spanish youngster Carles Gil from the bench on the hour mark as a replacement for the more defensive-minded Ashley Westwood.
Bojan, who was appearing to tire, opted to try to square the ball to Diouf inside the packed out penalty area, when his best option by far was to pull the trigger with just United States international Guzan to beat.
It wasn’t long until the Spanish forward was replaced by former Barcelona teammate Ibrahim Afellay, whilst Diouf had to depart the field on a stretcher after landing awkwardly on his back following a heavy challenge from Micah Richards.
It was the former Manchester City defender who wasted the home side’s best opportunity of the afternoon as he planted a header wide of goal when he should, at the very least, have forced Jack Butland into a save.
The England ‘keeper was a relative spectator throughout, but did deal with several long balls into the box with ease as he watched the likes of Cameron, Wollschied, Erik Pieters and Johnson keep the home side at bay.
There were late appeals for a penalty waved away by referee Michael Jones, who correctly adjudged substitute Jordan Ayew to have dived inside the penalty area before Pieters had even made any minimal contact with him.
It was nervy towards the end as five minutes of stoppage time slowly passed by, but come the final whistle there were joyous scenes inside the stand housing the Stoke City supporters, who were celebrating victory, and a first league clean-sheet of the term.