STOKE CITY’S late charge towards a European position hit the rocks at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon as Southampton ended the Potters’ four-match unbeaten run.
Mark Hughes’ side went into the fixture knowing victory would elevate them above Liverpool in seventh and establish a five-point cushion between themselves and the Saints.
However, the afternoon failed to run to script as the visitors ended their winless run thanks to a striker who had failed to net in his previous 12 top-flight appearances.
Graziano Pelle, who last scored in early November, gave Ronald Koeman’s troops a dream start with a well-taken header from close range.
The Italian was back in the business again shortly after, curling a strike into the far corner of the net from 15-yards to double the Saints’ advantage.
Marko Arnautovic offered some salvation for the home side at the start of the second half with a sublimely taken eleventh of the season, but it failed to spur what would have been a dramatic fightback.
There was some late drama when substitute Sadio Mane was controversially dismissed by referee Lee Mason, despite making contact with Erik Pieters with his head, and not his elbow as the official thought.
Prior to kick-off Hughes was handed a major boost with the news that skipper Ryan Shawcross was deemed fit enough to start for the first time since suffering a back injury at the end of January.
His return to the starting eleven was the only change to the side from the one that held reigning Champions Chelsea to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge seven days earlier.
The skipper’s inclusion came at the expense of former Barcelona defender Marc Muniesa, who dropped down to the bench.
Southampton made a couple of changes to their starting line-up with both Jose Fonte and Victor Wanyama absent through suspension.
On the back of registering 10 points from four matches the Potters looked bright and ready to maintain their surge up the table, with Giannelli Imbula rifling a long-range effort just wide of target after brushing aside two Saints defenders.
But, before the home side were able to build upon their early momentum they found themselves behind when Pelle, in trademark style, lost his marker inside the penalty area and powered an in-swinging corner beyond Butland.
The goal undoubtedly affected the Potters’ rhythm, and before they knew it they were two goals behind, and it was that man, Pelle, once more who caused the damage with a well-taken strike from 15-yards.
To compound the agony Xherdan Shaqiri hobbled off after pulling up with an apparent groin strain. Spanish ace Bojan was his replacement.
Reminiscent of the recent 3-0 home reverse against Everton, a chance presented itself to the visitors right at the end of the half to put the game to bed, but with the goal at his mercy Dusan Tadic was too hesitant, allowing Erik Pieters to nip in and clear the danger.
Stoke fans needed a response following the break, and that is exactly what they got. Afellay did well out wide, lashed a superb ball across the six-yard box and Arnautovic exquisitely turned it home to half the deficit.
Was that going to prove the springboard for a comeback? Well, it may well have done had the hosts managed to seize the advantage of some intense periods of pressure following the Austrian’s intervention.
Imbula fired over on two occasions when well position outside the danger zone, whilst Arnautovic forced Fraser Forster into a superb save after spinning Virgil van Dijk inside the box.
Geoff Cameron then picked out Mame Diouf with a superb ball 20 minutes from time, but after taking a touch his goal-bound effort was superbly blocked by the outstretched leg of Dutch international van Dijk.
At the other end James Ward-Prowse rattled the woodwork with a tremendous set-piece attempt, whilst the officials waved play on after Tadic was seemingly clipped inside the area by Butland, after he raced out to try and deny the winger.
Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters were thrust into the action late on in a desperate bid to claim a point, but it proved to be in vain as the visitors, who were reduced to ten men in stoppage time, held on for a crucial victory.