Stoke put in below-average performance but still win vs. Norwich
Stoke climbed up to seventh in the Premier League on Wednesday with a 3-1 victory over Norwich, who played an hour of the game with 10 men following a red card for a reckless challenge by Gary O'Neill.
It was a decision that affected the game but not necessarily one that dramatically turned it in favour of the Potters, who up to that point had managed to comfortably cope with any threat posed by the visitors. It was an open contest that referee Neil Swarbrick did well to let flow, and it was perhaps that leniency against some of the harder challenges on show that prompted O'Neill to go through the back of Ibrahim Afellay so readily.
Alas, it was an entirely unnecessary and reckless act that meant the Canaries midfielder was able to enjoy the warmth of the showers an hour earlier than his colleagues as they toiled in his absence amid the sub-zero temperatures that so often envelop the Britannia Stadium.
In truth, the sending off perhaps bought a bit of breathing space for a side that put in a far from impressive performance, with a number of players struggling to reach the heights of their undoubted talents. Goalkeeper Jack Butland -- an early contender for player of the season -- was almost left red faced with an uncharacteristically atrocious clearance that fell straight to the feet of Wes Hoolahan, but thankfully the diminutive Irishman wasn't able to get his shot on target to take advantage. Butland won't be the only one who'll be questioning his contribution, though, as it was a disappointing showing from most of the team apart from Afellay, Marko Arnautovic, Jon Walters and Joselu Mato, who carried their colleagues through to the three points.
In the absence of Geoff Cameron, Dutchman Afellay occupied a more defensive berth and barely put a foot wrong all evening with a disciplined and professional performance that gives manager Mark Hughes plenty to think about as he eyes up additions in that area of the pitch. It was Joselu who took home the man-of-the-match award, though, as he made the most of a rare start up front with a show of intelligence, strength, vision and technique.
He demonstrated that he can play the role of both provider and finisher, and his ability to hold up the ball could mean that Hughes need not look much further for a rounded leading man to complement his star-studded attack. Joselu is likely to get the nod again when Arsenal roll into town on Sunday looking to strengthen their title credentials at a ground that has more often than not seen them leave empty handed.
Their last visit to the Potteries saw them succumb to a Bojan Krkic-inspired Stoke victory that could have been so much worse. A wrongly disallowed goal in the first half saved the Gunners from going into the break with a four-goal deficit, and the contest finished with a more respectable 3-2 scoreline. Fans will be hoping the memory of that performance will inspire their stuttering Spaniard, who has seemingly suffered more than most with the hectic fixture schedule in the past few weeks.
Unfortunately, Krkic won't be joined on the pitch by Xherdan Shaqiri, who is expected to miss the remainder of the month with a hamstring injury that should see Walters featuring again on the right side of attack. The Irishman appears to be enjoying a run of good form with three goals in his past four games. Fans have been used to seeing Walters line up week in, week out under the previous regime, but Hughes would appear to have found a better way of managing the Irishman. By using Walters more sparingly and perhaps engendering a bit of hunger, Hughes seems to have gotten the most out of a player whose form tends to arrive in bursts throughout the season.
In a campaign that, at the turn of the year, sees Leicester kept off the top of the league by goal difference alone, the sky really is the limit for a number of middling clubs -- including Stoke -- who are ordinarily unable to get anywhere near the upper echelons of the league. With four months of the season remaining, normal service could of course be resumed, but for now the dream of European qualification is very much a reality for a team who continue to go from strength to strength.
James Whittaker is ESPN FC's Stoke blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @northstokie