Stoke’s dreams of League Cup glory came crashing to an end at the Britannia Stadium last night after a 1-0 loss to Championship Derby. Both sides missed a host of good chances, the tie looking destined for extra time before a late Nathan Ellington penalty, awarded by controversial referee Rob Styles gave Derby the victory.
Tony Pulis fielded a reasonably strong side for Stoke, but still made five changes, bringing in Steve Simonsen in goal, Ibrahima Sonko to the defence and Glenn Whelan, Seyi Olofinjana and Richard Cresswell to the midfield. Ex-Derby trio Andy Griffin Danny Higginbotham and Rory Delap all lined up against their former employers while Andrew Davies was given a spot on the bench after recovering from a long-term injury problem.
It was Stoke who put together the first meaningful attack of the match, forward Mamady Sidibe breaking through on the left flank before teeing the ball up for Rory Delap at the far post. The bounce of the ball took it agonising past Delap though, eventually rolling out for a goal-kick when any sort of contact with the cross would have probably resulted in a goal being scored.
Sidibe’s strike partner Ricardo Fuller, who was absolutely dreadful on the night, the wasted a good chance to add to his six goal tally for the season, blazing the ball high and wide following a short corner routine. Derby then created their first opening of the match, the lively Paul Green firing the ball just over Simonsen’s crossbar from twenty yards.
The returning Olofinjana then mustered the Potter’s first shot on target, but in true his effort was far too tame to trouble Roy Carroll in the Derby goal. Cresswell, playing on the left side of midfield, thought he had given Stoke the lead on the half hour mark, charging down a weak defensive clearance to go one-on-one with Carrroll and firing the ball beneath the former Manchester United ‘keeper into the net. The always controversial, and usually disliked Rob Styles was quick to disallow the goal though, adjudging Cresswell to have handled the ball when charging it down.
Styles was at the centre of all key incidents in the game
Derby again tried their luck from range to no avail before the half time whistle was blown by Styles, putting an end to a half that few would have been sorry to see end. Neither side had created much in front of goal, and neither looked like scoring, but it did look at this point that the home side may just have the quality to edge out Derby and progress through. Serious improvements were needed in the second half though but these did not come, neither manager opting for any half time changes in a match that badly needed a spark.
The best move of the game was put together by Derby five minutes into the second half, and created the clearest chance of the game in doing so. Eventual matchwinner Ellington broke down the left and whipped in a very dangerous cross, which was met by the former Stoke player Kris Commons, who has booed throughout the match by the Stoke support who remember the acrimonious manner in which he left the club five years ago. Commons was only able to power his header onto the bar though and Rob Hulse guided his volley follow up wide from close range with the goal gaping. In fairness, the ball came at him very quickly, but a striker of his quality would always hope to put a chance like that away.
Stoke needed something to bring them to life and it looked momentarily as if this scare had provided that boost, Sidibe cleverly playing Fuller in for a clear run at goal. The Jamaican international delayed shooting too long though, allowing former Watford man Jordan Stewart to get back to make an excellent last ditch saving tackle. It is crucial for Stewart to win the ball clearly, as a foul in that position would have given Stoke a penalty and left Derby with ten men for over an hour, but win the ball he did, sending it out for a corner to the great frustration of the 18,000 Stoke fans present.
Fuller fluffed his lines yet again minutes later, guiding his free header six yards out a full fifteen yards wide of the goal. Derby then enjoyed a spell of heavy pressure, striking the post after a frantic goalmouth scramble before Leon Cort made a good block to divert Commons’ on target effort over the crossbar.
With chances coming thick and fast, Sidibe was then handed an opportunity to put Stoke ahead. Full made just about his only positive input of the night, sending a precise low ball into the box, but Sidibe’s finish failed to do it justice, the Malian steering the ball past Carroll’s right hand post. With ten minutes remaining Stoke had arguably their best chance of all to win it. Whelan, who was probably the club’s best player on the night, though that’s not saying much, whipped in a dangerous free-kick from the left wing. Cort met the ball with his head, forcing Carroll to produce a fine diving save to his right. The ball fell to Fuller though six yards out who seemingly couldn’t miss with the goal at his mercy. What followed summed up the night for Fuller and Stoke though, his volleyed effort being brilliantly blocked on the line by eighteen year old defender James Tomkins who excelled for the Rams.
The tie seemed to be heading for extra time, with both sides looking content with that before Derby forced one last corner in the final of the three minutes of injury time. The Stoke defence was caught cold by a quickly taken short corner, the ball being fired into the box with pace and striking Stoke captain and former Derby player Andy Griffin on the arm. Styles, having almost managed a reasonably controversy free ninety minutes, deemed the contact to have been deliberate and awarded the penalty, which Nathan Elington coolly converted, stroking the ball to Simonsen’s right and sending the ‘keeper the wrong way.
Ellington celebrates his winner at the death
With the 4,000 travelling Derby fans still celebrating wildly, Styles blew the final whistle, calling an end to a cup run for Stoke that had promised so much more and sending Derby through to the two-legged semi-final where they will play Burnley, Manchester United, Blackburn, Watford or Tottenham Hotspur for a place in the Wembley final.
Few could deny that Derby did not at least match Stoke in what was in truth yet another poor game at the Britannia Stadium and with wasteful finishing as was shown last night being a problem for the Potters, fans will not only rue the missed opportunity of cup glory but fear for our prospects of Premier League survival.
Stoke team: (4:4:2)
Griffin Sonko Cort Higginbotham
Delap Whelan Olofinjana Cresswell
Substitutions: Pugh for Olofinjana (81)
Subs not used: Sorensen, Abdoulaye Faye, Amdy Faye, Pericard, Dickinson, Davies