STOKE CITY notched up a third successive clean sheet as they held promotion chasing Derby County to a goalless draw on Wednesday evening.
Jack Butland was the visitors’ hero, producing two outstanding first-half saves to keep the home side at bay, whilst the woodwork twice came to the Potters’ rescue either side of the break.
For all of Frank Lampard’s sides verve and swagger they were unable to breach a City backline which is becoming more dogged and gritty by the week.
In fact, their hard work and aggression at the back very nearly laid the foundations for an unlikely late City winner only for James McClean to see his thumping header cannon back off the post.
Prior to kick-off Nathan Jones was forced into making a solitary change with Sam Clucas serving the first of his three-match suspension, paving the way for Ryan Woods to return.
January acquisition Sam Vokes and Nigerian ace Peter Etebo both missed out as the City boss aired on the side of caution despite both players making progress with their injuries.
Derby, buoyed by Bristol City’s failure to beat Ipswich Town 24 hours earlier, started the game in explosive fashion as they looked to further cement themselves within the top six.
Tom Huddlestone was the first to test the resolve of Butland, lashing a thumping half-volley towards the bottom corner, only for the England international to respond with a sublime save down to his right.
The visitors struggled for any real early momentum and were served a blow when lone striker Benik Afobe was forced off the field with a hamstring strain during the initial exchanges.
The lively Duane Holmes then saw a dipping strike ricochet off the post, before Butland once more came to his side’s aid with a stunning save from close range to thwart Harry Wilson.
The England stopper then incredibly turned provider, letting fly an audacious ball forward through to former Ram Tom Ince, only for the wideman to miss the target having seemingly done the hard work in edging past Richard Keogh.
It didn’t take the home side long to regain a foothold on proceedings with the tireless Martyn Waghorn making a nuisance for himself up top, whilst Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson was often the architect of the vast majority of Derby’s more positive moments.
It was in fact the Welsh international who very nearly put his side in front during the second 45 with a ferocious strike from distance which flew inches wide of Butland’s post.
As the home side grew in confidence, Jones opted to make a tactical change, replacing Charlie Adam with Ashley Williams, and deploying a wing-back system to try and change the direction of the game.
The switch allowed the impressive Tom Edwards more freedom down the right, something he clearly relished as he burst forward and teed up McClean, whose diving header agonisingly hit the post before bouncing to safety.
That was as close as the visitors came to stealing all three points as Lampard’s desperate troops laid siege to the City goal during the final 15 minutes.
However, they found Butland in inspired form and the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Danny Baath taking absolutely no prisoners, with their partnership continuing to blossom at the heart of the backline.
There was one final moment of drama however when Wilson curled a delicious free-kick towards goal, only for the crossbar to deny him what would have undoubtedly been a match-winning moment.
Whilst Jones will demand greater presence and threat from his side moving forward, the Welshman will certainly take heart from another cleansheet, a fourth in six outings, and a point which stretches his side’s unbeaten run to six matches.