STOKE CITY produced an immediate response to last weekend’s first defeat in seven as they returned to winning ways in front of the live SKY television cameras on Sunday lunchtime.
Heurelho Gomes’ first-half own goal proved to be the difference between the two sides on paper, although in truth there was only ever one side likely to take maximum spoils.
Mark Hughes’ men had a real swagger to them, and despite being forced into a trio of changes and opting to make two more, they looked the far more polished side by far.
Giannelli Imbula returned for the first time since September and produced arguably his most impressive 90 minutes in a Stoke shirt, whilst Charlie Adam alongside him was full of tenacity and quality.
The margin of victory should undoubtedly have been greater with several opportunities both prior to and following Gomes’ OG narrowly missing the target.
Imbula, the Potters’ £18M record signing, very nearly opened his account for the campaign with a stunning effort from 30-yards that few agonisingly wide of the target, just a few minutes after the impeccable Bruno Martins Indi saw a strike saved by the Hornets ‘keeper.
The visitors dominance was always likely to culminate in a goal and it came from a set-piece on the half hour mark when Adam rose highest to plant a header onto the inside of the post before the ball flew across the line and into the net via the hand of the unfortunate Gomes.
Still, it was no less than Hughes’ troops deserved, and their only first-half gripe will have been that they weren’t in an even more commanding position with Jonathan Walters and Marko Arnautovic both going close.
The half-time interval offered the home side an opportunity to recuperate and dust themselves down, and whilst they had more about them in the second period they still never threatened to seriously get back into the game.
In fact it was Stoke who should have doubled their lead just three minutes in when a classic counter attack saw Arnautovic square the ball across to the unmarked Walters, but the Austrian’s ball was slightly too powerful for the onrushing Irishman to capitalise on.
Watford saw a penalty appeal rightly turned down by referee Robert Madeley, despite the anger of the clearly frustrated home fans, whilst Troy Deeney headed over the bar with what was their first real sight of goal.
Imbula, who was later named SKY’s man of the match, was at the heart of most positive passages of play for the Potters, and it was he again who was instrumental in another foray forward, one that resulted in Arnautovic’s strike being bloke den-route to the bottom corner of the net.
A succession of corners gave the home fans a glimmer of hope that they could sneak a point out of the game, but despite the efforts of Deeney and substitute Odion Ighalo there was no way through a stubborn City rearguard, which featured the superb Marc Muniesa and Glen Johnson.
As they game wore on, it began to get a little stretched with Walter Mazzarri egging his players forward, which in turn allowed opportunities on the break for the visitors, especially for Mame Diouf, who was another serious man of the match contender.
His work ethic on the flank was second to none, and whilst he didn’t manage to offer a great deal in the attacking areas, his duties in a more defensive role were carried out to absolute perfection.
There were late chances to put the game to bed with Erik Pieters flashing an effort marginally wide before Imbula went agonisingly close to capping off a splendid display with a curling effort that beat Gomes, only to land on the roof of the net.
Right at the death Miguel Britos was shown a second yellow card, and dismissed, after pulling back Shaqiri - topping off a frustrating day for the home side, who would have gone into sixth place with a victory.