A SUPERB second half showing from Stoke City was enough to ensure all three points against Aston Villa in the final home game of the calendar year, and elevate the Club into the top half of the table.
Substitute Charlie Adam broke the deadlock just six minutes after his introduction, before the visitors were gifted a lifeline by Erik Pieters, whose misplaced back pass culminated in Libor Kozak slamming home from close range.
Man of the match Peter Crouch registered his fifth goal of the season just four minutes later however, tapping home from close range after Geoff Cameron had picked the England ace out with a sublime ball across the 6-yard box.
The victory, coupled with West Bromwich Albion’s late equaliser at home to Hull City, meant the side secured a spot in the top half of the Premier League – although that could change on Sunday as Swansea play host to Everton.
Ryan Shawcross handed boss Mark Hughes a major pre-match boost after overcoming a groin injury that had looked likely to rule him out of the encounter.
The skipper sustained the problem during the latter stages of Wednesday evening’s Capital One Cup defeat against Manchester United.
However, he passed a late fitness test and was included in the starting eleven, which featured three changes from midweek.
Asmir Begovic returned at the expense of Thomas Sorensen, Marko Arnautovic replaced Stephen Ireland and Steven Nzonzi overcame a bout of illness to start in place of Wilson Palacios.
The conditions weren’t quite as treacherous as Wednesday, but the wind swirling around the Britannia Stadium made it difficult for either side to get into the swing of things during the initial proceedings.
There were a couple of half-opportunities for the visitors however, with both Libor Kozak and Nathan Baker stinging the fingertips of the imperious Begovic.
Marko Arnautovic was doing his utmost to spark life into the Potters at the other end, but even he was struggling to crack open a solid looking Villa backline.
There was a huge let-off for the hosts midway through the first half when a lacklustre touch from Wilson allowed Andreas Weimann to burst through on goal, only for the Irish defender to bring him down.
The referee awarded the free-kick right on the edge of the area, and for a split-second appeared that he would issue a red card to the desperate defender.
Thankfully, only a yellow was issued, with the referee pointing to the fact that the Austrian’s touch wouldn’t have culminated in a clear goal-scoring opportunity with Begovic quick off his line to claim the loose ball.
Clearly frustrated by the decision the visitors let slip their grip on the game from that moment on, and the Potters began to look to team more likely to break the deadlock.
First of all, Cameron saw an audacious cross-cum-shot almost catch out his American compatriot Brad Guzan, whilst both Crouch and Arnautovic saw seemingly goal-bound efforts bravely blocked by Ciaran Clark.
The assault continued as the clock wore on with both Whelan and Cameron hammering efforts wide as the visitors desperately waited for the half-time interval to arrive.
Eventually it did, and with it came a change for the hosts. Scotland international Adam replaced Arnautovic, who had struggled to find a rhythm during the opening 45 minutes.
His introduction proved to be a masterstroke by Hughes, as within just six minutes he had latched onto a clever Crouch flick on and superbly slotted home the opening goal of the game from an acute angle.
It was no more than the home side deserved after laying siege to the visitors goal, but incredibly they found themselves back on level terms ten minutes later when Erik Pieters misplaced his attempted back-pass, straight into the path of Kozak, who dispatched well from 8-yards.
The energy levels were lifted amongst the Villa team following the fortuitous leveller, but before their contingent of supporters had managed to catch their breath, Crouch had restored Stoke’s advantage.
A superb deep cross from the impressive Cameron, evaded three Villa defenders and landed straight at the feet of Crouch, who with maybe a slight ricochet off his hand, had the simple task of firing into an empty net from 2-yards.
Paul Lambert responded by introducing Leandro Bacuna at the expense of Albrighton as he seeked to find a second goal during the final 15 minutes of the match.
Crouch almost helped himself to a second of the afternoon when he flicked Whelan’s header on to the post, when really he will have felt disappointed not to have hit the back of the net and secured victory for his side.
As it was the Potters faced a nervy final few minutes, but managed to stand firm and hold out comfortably to record a superb three points.