By Calvin Palmer
Good fortune smiled on Stoke City in the opening and closing minutes of Saturday’s game against Manchester United at the Britannia Stadium.
When United striker Hernández in the third minute seized on a deflected ball, which played him onside, Jonathan Woodgate’s last ditch tackle immediately had me thinking a penalty would be awarded and the Stoke defender dismissed.
The action replay showed that Woodgate did in fact play the ball but I doubt whether referee Peter Walton knew that. Walton decided not to award a penalty and I think every Stoke fan watching gave a huge sigh of relief.
In the second of four minutes added on at the end, Ryan Giggs found himself in space at the back post and I expected to see Stoke’s net bulge. Nine times out of 10, it would have done but on this occasion Giggs steered the ball wide and the score remained at 1-1.
In between, those two incidents there was nothing remotely fortunate about Stoke’s performance against United who came into the game boasting a 100 per cent record from five games, with 21 goals scored and only four conceded.
United’s class did look as if it might bring its just desserts in the 27th minute when Nani rifled in a superb shot after a dazzling run.
The lead could have been shortlived. Sixty seconds later Stoke’s full-back Andy Wilkinson surged into the United penalty area and unleashed a ferocious drive that looked destined for the top corner of United’s goal.
Goalkeeper David De Gea had other ideas and brilliantly tipped the shot away for a corner. De Gea produced a second world-class save seven minutes later to deny Jonathan Walters. The Stoke striker’s low drive was heading for the far corner.
In the second half, Stoke pressed for the equalizer and it came on 52 minutes when Peter Crouch got in between Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones to head home a pinpoint corner kick taken by Matthew Etherington. De Gea on this occasion was rooted to his line and could only watch as the ball flew into the net.
Crouch could have had a second goal when he toe-poked a shot that De Gea knew little about, as he turned his head away. Fortunately, the ball hit De Gea’s elbow and went for a corner.
It was easy to see why Dimitar Berbatov is out of favour with Sir Alex Ferguson. Called into to start for the first time this season in place of the injured Wayne Rooney, Berbatov was largely anonymous. He only caught the eye once with a preposterous dive in the Stoke penalty area.
Berbatov was challenged but took another step before falling to the ground as if shot. He can count himself lucky not have been booked by referee Walton for diving.
The reaction of United fans to the loss of the club’s 100 per cent record have been mildly amusing and just go to show how so many people only see half of what is going on at a football game. Many United fan’s claim a penalty should have been awarded when Evra’s shot cannoned into Ryan Shawcross’s arm.
TV pundit Craig Burley was incensed no penalty kick was given, arguing that it had to be a penalty because Shawcross, like any sensible person when a ball is driven at a ferocious pace, turned away from the ball. So if Shawcross had not turned, presumable Burley would have been all right with referee Walton’s decision?
The replay did show the ball hitting Shawcross’s arm but it was ball to hand rather than intentional and that, dear Craig, is why the referee did not award a penalty.
After the match, Sir Alex Ferguson said a draw was a fair result. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment. He also made no comment on the incident that brought on Burley’s fit of celtic histrionics.
Stoke City really are a Jekyll-and-Hyde side. Eight days ago, they gave an abysmal performance against a struggling Sunderland and lost 4-0. On Saturday, they came so close to beating one of the top three sides in Europe.
Stoke travel to Swansea City on Sunday. If there is any logic in football, and we all know there isn’t, they should easily beat the newly promoted side. But away from home Stoke struggle to replicate their sterling performances at fortress Britannia. Part of the reason is that manager Tony Pulis approaches away games with a view to not losing rather than setting out to win the game right from the start.
It is for that reason many Stoke fans look askance at recent suggestions by football writers that Stoke City could be pushing for a top six place this season in the Premier League. It would be nice to think that they could but Stoke are Stoke and Pulis is Pulis.
On the back of the magnificent performance against United, I would dearly love to think things could change but I won’t be holding my breath on that one. It will not surprise me in the least if Stoke grind out a 1-0 defeat against Swansea.