STOKE CITY’S hopes of a record breaking Barclays Premier League campaign were dashed at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon as Sunderland snatched a dramatic point right at the death.
The Potters had looked to be on course for a first top-flight win in five matches courtesy of Marko Arnautovic’s superbly taken twelfth goal of the season five minutes after the half-time interval.
However, after the hosts had spurned several glorious opportunities to put the game to bed, a penalty from Jermain Defoe for minutes into stoppage time secured an invaluable point for the Black Cats.
The goal was met with jubilation from the travelling 3,000 or so Sunderland supporters, who continue to cling to hope of seeing their club retain its top-flight status for the 2016/17 campaign.
For City, the two dropped points meant surpassing last term’s record tally of points would have to wait for at least another twelve months.
That said, victories over Crystal Palace, at Selhurst Park next weekend, and at home to West Ham United, on the final day of the season, would be enough to match the 54 points that were accrued in 2014/15.
There was no hiding the fact that boss Mark Hughes was desperate for a response from his troops, following successive 4-0 defeats, as he made five changes to his starting line-up.
Shay Given’s injury paved the way for Jakob Haugaard to make his third league start of the season, whilst there were also recalls for former England international Crouch, Xherdan Shaqiri, Erik Pieters and Charlie Adam.
There was definitely more steel to the side - something that was needed as the visitors, desperate to stave off the threat of relegation, began the game at a high-tempo, eager to build upon their draw at Liverpool seven days earlier.
It was Stoke though who created the better opportunities during the opening 45 minutes with Arnautovic rifling an effort over after being superbly picked out inside the penalty area, whilst he narrowly failed to make contact with a delightful ball from Shaqiri when well positioned.
There were brief moments of worry at the other end as Sunderland looked to catch the home side on the break at every opportunity - with the pace of Patrick van Aanholt and Defoe causing numerous headaches for the City rearguard.
Haugaard was rarely troubled though, and even when he was brought into question he posed the necessary answers to deal with long range efforts from Lee Cattermole and man-mountain Jan Kirschoff.
Crouch, who remains three goals short of a century of Premier League goals, thought he had bridged that gap to two when he leaped highest to meet Phil Bardsley’s centre shortly before the break, but watched in frustration as his header dropped the wrong side of the post.
There was a sense within the stadium that the game needed a goal to really burst into life, and Arnautovic was the man to deliver the goods when he gambled on Crouch’s clever header and drilled the ball into the back of the net from close range.
Stoke had the wind in their sails, and Sunderland were struggling. The goal came at a disastrous time for Allardyce and his troops, and as a consequence they were forced to re-evaluate their plans in a bid to revive their hopes of clawing themselves back into the game.
Two changes were made, with Duncan Watmore and Dame N’Doye being thrust into the action, although despite their introductions it was the home side who looked the more likely of the teams to score a second goal of the afternoon.
Adam went close from distance with a curling free-kick, after he was brought down clumsily, whilst shortly after a combination of Crouch and substitute Jonathan Walters went close to scrambling the ball over the line.
A rare Sunderland surge forward very nearly culminated in an equalising goal when Defoe lashed a rasping effort inches over the bar, whilst he was at it again a few minutes later as he acrobatically volleyed wide of the target.
Hughes responded by introducing Marc Muniesa from the bench at the expense of Adam, who was treading a fine line after picking up a caution, whilst Mame Diouf was also introduced in a bid to breath fresh life into the Potters attack.
As the seconds and minutes, slowly, ticked down towards the full-time mark, gaps began to appear within the Sunderland backline, and chances were there for the hosts to exploit them - most notably when Giannelli Imbula was freed on goal by Walters, although he curled his effort inches wide.
It proved to be a decisive miss as seconds later, at the other end of the field, Geoff Cameron, who had enjoyed a fine showing at the heart of defence, was harshly adjudged to have tripped Defoe inside the 18-yard-box.
The former England ace needed no second invitation to step up to the mark and drill the ball home, and in the process come to his side’s rescue on the road once more.