Stoke City: Fans well entertained as Potters deserved their point in London
HANDS up all those who expected Stoke's evening at West Ham to be as much fun as a game of Monopoly with the Mitchell brothers?
Let's face it, a Stoke side who were struggling for goals and hadn't won in 15 league away games, weren't supposed to provide more than token opposition for a West Ham side who needed to win to go fifth in the table.
Yet the 700 Stoke fans who made it were handsomely rewarded for their faith as City produced one of their best performances of the campaign.
Stoke hadn't just struggled for goals in their three previous games (Sunderland 0-0, Norwich 0-1, QPR 1-0), they had struggled to create chances too.
Yet they played some tremendous stuff in the opening 45 minutes at Upton Park, as Steven Nzonzi, Charlie Adam and Robert Huth all came close to putting the game beyond reach.
As for City's 13th-minute goal … both a set piece and a thing of beauty. It was the product of practice on the training ground and perfect execution when it mattered as Jon Walters set off on a looping run from the back post to the front, to meet Glenn Whelan's low corner with a perfect first-time strike which zipped into the net from 12 yards.
There's been no doubting City's defence, after all they had the equal best record in the league along with Manchester City prior to this game.
The final third has been the problem, but there was no sign of that here as Stoke passed the ball crisply, got forward in numbers and should have had a greater lead to show for their efforts than Walters's strike.
They were severely tested at the back in the second half, but held up well under pressure when many sides would have crumbled after Joey O'Brien's 48th-minute equaliser.
Asmir Begovic's fluorescent orange kit may give him the look of a genetically-modified satsuma, but if he feels self-conscious it didn't show as he maintained his high standards with immaculate handling throughout and crucial saves from Kevin Nolan just when it seemed this delicately balanced game might tip towards the Hammers.
As an added bonus, Begovic managed to wind up the home fans by occasionally taking longer over some of his goal-kicks than Cliff 'the grinder' Thorburn used to take to line up a three-ball snooker.
However, this was far from a negative Stoke display. City had a go and contributed to a belter of a game of football from which both teams and managers deserve much credit.
Managers' pre-match comments about each other usually involve more buttering up than half-price crumpet day down at the Greasy Spoon.
Even so, Sam Allardyce's weekly column in the London Evening Standard still made interesting reading.
He made the point that neither he nor his equally experienced counterpart Tony Pulis have got the credit they deserve. He's right too.
Always considered unfashionable, they are string vests in a pretentious Premier League boutique surrounded by a 'this-season's-fashion' Brendan Rodgers and a 'simply-must-have' AVB.
Yet Allardyce and Pulis's 'direct' teams produced a cracker last night. A thriller in which Stoke were on top in the first half, West Ham in the second, but which could have gone either way right to the end.
There's been much talk of evolution at the Britannia this season, but I doubt there would be many complaints if Stoke wound back the clock to the end of the 2010-11 season and recreated some of the football they played in that spell leading up to the FA Cup final.
This game wouldn't have looked out of place in that run and, touch wood, bodes well for the back-to-back home games against Fulham and Newcastle.
City would have hoped their early goal last night would quieten the home support, but it seemed to have the opposite effect as the Hammers fans got right behind their side to contribute to a sizzling atmosphere under the lights.
The sell-out crowd were no doubt encouraged by the offer of £20 a ticket – Norwich with your £45 admission take note.
They are associated with 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles', but just before the teams run out, the crowd are treated to a rousing rendition of "London Calling" by the Clash.
The Hammers are lucky to have such an iconic anthem about their home town. It is a local touch City would love at the Brit. Robbie Williams is disqualified because of his Port Vale connections, and no offence to Eminem, but when was he last in Festival Park Morrisons?