STOKE CITY’S 2016/17 Emirates FA Cup campaign came to an abrupt halt on Saturday afternoon as Wolverhampton Wanderers stunned Mark Hughes’ men at the bet365 Stadium.
The Championship outfit secured themselves a spot in Monday evening’s fourth round draw courtesy of superbly taken goals from Helder Costa and Matt Doherty either side of the interval.
Hughes sought a comfortable passage into the next round of the competition and signalled his intentions by fielding an incredibly strong line-up prior to kick-off.
The Welshman recalled the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan and Giannelli Imbula to his starting line-up whilst the fit-again Ibrahim Afellay was, as expected, deployed in the 11.
However, it was Paul Lambert’s side who prevailed victorious from the encounter, kick-starting their sluggish campaign in fine fashion.
The home side started the game slowly, allowing the visitors the opportunity to gain some crucial early momentum as they looked to spring a surprise in North Staffordshire.
Lee Grant twice came close to being beaten during the initial exchanges with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Dominic Iorfa rifling efforts inches wide of the post.
At the other end Peter Crouch very nearly connected with Marko Arnautovic’s delightful volley across goal following good work on the right from Shaqiri.
That was close as a goal came for the hosts during the first 45 minutes however, and it was the travelling contingent who were celebrating the opening strike of the afternoon 15 minutes before the break.
Portuguese winger Costa, who arrived in the summer, twisted and turned on the corner of the penalty area and unleashed a thumping drive that flew beyond the reach of the helpless Grant, and into the bottom corner of the net.
Hughes responded by making a double switch at the break with Joe Allen and Charlie Adam replacing Imbula and Bojan.
The changes undoubtedly aided the home side, who played with far more freedom and fluidity after the interval.
Carl Ikeme, a relative bystander in the first-half, was showcasing his talents with an array of fine saves to keep the score line level.
Firstly, he finger-tipped Afellay’s stunning effort, which appeared destined for the top corner, over the bar and then produced an even better stop to deny Arnautovic’s rasping volley from 8-yards.
Allen was next to test the evergreen stopper from distance, but once more he had the answer to the question posed to him - likewise when Crouch was presented with a guilt-edged opportunity from inside the danger zone.
Even when Charlie Adam’s deceiving ball into the penalty area managed to catch the ‘keeper off-guard, he watched on with pure relief as Crouch and substitute Julien Ngoy narrowly failed to connect with the ball.
The game was becoming more and more open as the home side chased a leveller, and with that there were always going to be opportunities for the visitors to catch the hosts on the counter-attack - something they were able to do time and time again during the final 15 minutes.
Despite that though, the final nail in the coffin was hammered in by full-back Doherty, who struck a sublime free-kick into the corner of the net from 20-yards after Bruno Martins Indi was adjudged to have fouled Joe Mason, 10 minutes from time.
With that disappeared the Potters hopes of prolonging their stay in the competition.