Stoke City find extra gear to see off Crystal Palace
ALL is forgiven, Jon Walters, not that anyone was blaming you anyway.
Just four days after his calamitous self-destruction against Chelsea came last night's extra-time double to catapult Stoke into a fourth-round tie at home to Manchester City on Saturday week.
Extra-time was five minutes old when Matthew Etherington's drilled cross from the left eluded everyone – except that man Walters ghosting in at the far post to bury a header.
And then five minutes into the second period of extra-time Walters charged clear on to a Kenwyne Jones through-ball before hammering across the keeper and into his far corner for 3-1.
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What a moment of self-resurrection for a player hurting so much after those two own goals and the missed penalty against Chelsea at the weekend.
Not that Walters was the only one looking relieved after Stoke had made hard work of resisting Palace's gallant attempts at a shock last night.
Jones stepped off the bench to head City in front thanks to a goalkeeping howler that seemed certain to send the home side through in normal time.
But Palace deservedly levelled late on when Ryan Shawcross conceded his second penalty of the evening to leave Glenn Murray crashing home his 23rd goal of the season.
Stoke's extra-time dominance extended beyond Walters when Cameron Jerome streaked through and went wide of the keeper before sliding into an empty net for 4-1.
Stoke, showing four changes to Saturday's starting line-up and with five internationals (past and present) on the bench, were soon into their stride last night as a quick break ended with Matthew Etherington's low cross being cut out before Peter Crouch could steer home.
Not that Palace had travelled north without ambition, however, and Aaron Wilbraham was only a yard over with a bullet header from a searing left-wing delivery.
Jon Walters looked keen to atone for Saturday's unfortunate contribution, but he would have to set his sights more accurately than he did when running goalwards and slicing well off target. Stoke were maintaining their hearty momentum, though, and Dean Whitehead might have recorded a rare goal had his snapshot not been deflected over the Palace bar.
An outstretched leg might also have rewarded Etherington's whipped ball across the face of the Palace goal as he enlivened proceedings just about every time he saw the ball first half.
Michael Kightly was similarly unlucky when lobbing one just beyond Crouch's waiting head, which was no mean feat.
You know it's getting quite chilly when former City defender Mike Pejic turns up for the game wearing gloves – and the temperature was about to plunge for Stoke during a worrying little spell late in the opening period.
Wilfried Zaha emerged from his winter hibernation with a short, sharp run and cross that just eluded Wilbraham, but then quickly regained possession and failed to win a penalty when going down too easily under Andy Wilkinson's challenge.
Zaha was looking for another spot-kick a few minutes later when cutting inside on Dean Whitehead and hitting the deck, but referee Anthony Taylor pulled out a yellow card for diving.
But Zaha had his revenge in the 34th minute when going down again, despite Ryan Shawcross appearing to get a toe to the ball, leaving the referee pointing to the spot this time.
But Thomas Sorensen, that master of the penalty save, guessed right by going left and smothered Jermaine Easter's low spot-kick on to his post and out to safety.
Still this third-round tie cried out for that elusive first goal after a first half in which Stoke had looked the better side for the first part, but Palace the better leading up to half-time.
Zaha's mysterious half-time withdrawal was greeted with cheers from a sparse Stoke crowd appreciating his influence in the later stages of the first half.
Whitehead, filling in at left-back since Wilkinson's first-half withdrawal, roamed in-field to let rip with a curling effort the Palace keeper was happy to parry away and not risk fumbling to a predatory Crouch or Walters. You had to say the visitors were looking the smoother and more comfortable in possession, while Stoke tried to up their game by introducing Cameron Jerome for the struggling Kightly and Jones for the quiet Crouch.
Jerome momentarily revived memories of that wonder strike against Southampton, but this left-foot effort was sending spectators ducking for cover in the Boothen End.
Those same fans were on their feet ready to celebrate a breakthrough shortly after when Jones announced his arrival with a fierce shot that deflected against the base of goalkeeper Lewis Price's right-hand post.
Price's luck deserted him barely a minute later, however, when Etherington dinked one to the far post for Jones to head down – and in thanks to the Palace keeper allowing the ball to squirm through his feeble grasp and over the line.
There was no stopping Jones as he took aim with another effort that deflected easily into Price's grasp amid ironic cheers from behind his goal.
But Stoke were to be awoken from any complacency when a distinctly neat one-touch move left Easter bearing down on the home goal and forcing Sorensen to smother his shot superbly.
Palace, having to commit men forward with increasing recklessness, were then caught on the break thanks to Glenn Whelan smuggling the ball away, but Etherington's attempt at a cross-cum-shot was deflected into Price's grateful grasp as the unmarked Jerome stood frustratingly redundant at the far stick.
The visitors threw on 22-goal Glenn Murray with 10 minutes remaining and he was soon inspiring a goal-ward manoeuvre that ended with Andre Moritz firing into the side-netting amid nervous gasps from the home crowd.
Palace weren't finished there, either, winning an 85th-minute penalty when Shawcross lunged in and caught Jonathan Williams to concede his second penalty of the evening.
And there was to be no reprieve for Stoke this time as Murray succeeded where Easter had failed earlier in the evening by confidently sending Sorensen the wrong way to send us into the drama of extra-time.