First of all, I hope that all of you have had a very merry Christmas, getting everything that you wanted and perhaps hoping that you`ve managed to pick that perfect present for your significant other – I`m sure they will love that half-season ticket instead of that handbag from that particular shop.
Frustratingly we couldn`t have the perfect crimbo as Stoke couldn`t deliver the points as well as number one fan Santa delivered the presents. What didn`t help was the fact that Peter Crouch has been struck down by a mystery illness (hopefully not caused by drinking), and Glen Whelan wasn`t at Pulis` disposal either, so Kenwyne Jones and Wilson Palacios were called up. Basically, the team that lost away to Manchester City in a 3-0 overpowering thumping, were to face a Villa side desperate to find the points to climb up the table.
Stoke started the game promisingly as the ball was blasted up field to unleash a rushing Jonathan Walters on the wing. With not much space or time to penetrate the area, he attempted to lob the ball towards goal after he spotted Brad Guzan had strayed from his line, but his effort was deflected by the defence for a corner.
The first corner came to nothing but another Mathew Etherington in-swinger shortly followed from the same corner flag. In came the ball and up went Robert Huth to head towards goal, but he sadly got underneath it and it looped high over the crossbar.
A merry bunch of fans, who`ve most likely popped into the pub for a pint of bass in a straight glass, seemed encouraged by the play Stoke were displaying, but it was early days yet which meant the Villa counter-attacks would be at full throttle.
Collins won the ball off Walters who then released a quick-footed Gabby Agbonlahor heading into the final third, but Huth rashly challenged to bring him down.
Villa became more and more on the front foot, dominating possession, but Stoke were holding out as Ryan Shawcross brilliantly cut out Agbonlahor before a serious threat, and then moments later, he made superb interception on Charles N`Zogbia shut out an attacking run down the wide left. All hoped that Ryan`s form so far would inspire others to do the same, but for now it would be the defensive side of things to be tested.
Aston Villa were awarded a string of corners as the Stoke defence were standing firm, but unable to clear. Hearts were truly in mouths however when Emile Hesky got a head on the ball to drive it goalwards and clip the outside of the post and out. Lucky for Stoke on this occasion, but the threat is certainly there, and the biggest of characters needed a spot of man-marking to keep that threat at bay.
Referee Mark Clattenburg felt that a rather soft foul on Agbonlahor warranted a booking for Huth, but as it seemed to be nothing at all, many questioned the free-kick let alone the yellow card.
Walters won a free-kick later though when Warnock brought him down outside the Villa box, just to the right of goal. Dean Whitehead stepped up and delivered the ball in, Huth got up for the header, but again he got underneath it as it looped over high and wide of the target.
Jonathan Woodgate made a slip up that could have proved to be a costly one. He wasn`t quite quick enough to chase down a loose ball, and his desperate pass-back to Thomas Sorensen was short, forcing the Great Dane to rush out and clear before Albrighton got a look in.
Petrov had a go from an awkward angle after some good build-up play by the villains. His shot was a daisy-cutter though as it was dragged wide.
Stoke were almost in with a glorious opportunity as Walters managed to get up and flick the ball on to Jones who managed to get past his marker, but Guzan was alert to come off his line and claim the ball just before the big Trinidadian.
Half time and a tight affair between the two sides, although the quality of entertainment was lacking slightly. Stoke had a couple of chances, but just need to be more accurate as these chances, they way it was going, were going to be few and far between.
Before the second half got underway, Villa were forced to make a change with Heskey coming off for Nathan Delfouneso. He must have taken a knock as he struggled in the later stages of the first half, and their greying ginger gaffer Alex McLeish wasn`t going to take any chances.
Ryan Shotton came out of the dressing bursting with energy as he used his pace down the wing to great effect; escaping the attentions of Warnock, he whipped in a dangerous cross to Walters, but Cuellar managed to get his head to it first to clear for a corner. Nothing came of it.
The Potters were pushing for a goal and being more ambitious in their attacking play, but that left space for Villa and Agbonlahor to take full advantage of as he raced towards goal. He found himself in an eye-opening position and fed Delfouneso who unleashed a crack at goal, but the most exquisite of anticipations from Sorensen helped him to pull off a fantastic reflex save with his right leg. Standing ovations from the Stoke crowd behind him and rightfully so after keeping us in the game so brilliantly.
Albrighton capitalised on Whitehead`s error and claimed possession for Villa. He made an over-head through-ball which fell to the feet of N`Zogbia who tried a long range effort, but his shot was well wide and no troubles for anybody in red and white.
Not long after Rory Delap came on for Palacios, Etherington won a corner for the Potters and stepped up to take it. Walters got up well as the ball swooped in with pace and put in a brilliant header. Everyone, including him, at that spilt second, must have thought he scored but no! The ball rattled the underside bar and hit Agbonlahor directly on the line just before the Villa man cleared. How unlucky it was for Super Jon the man machine, but it was never going to be easy for Stoke to score.
Stoke really started to pile on the pressure in the dying embers of the game as the missed opportunities seemed to relight the fire. They only needed to just take that one chance to be in front and that was what they were gunning for.
A succession of corners pegged back Villa, but they stood firm and held their own. Dunne and Collins were on red and white alert as Stoke swarmed the box with bodies, but another chance was yet to come.
Time was running out, but Delap hurled in a rocket throw that skimmed the head of Petrov and the ball flashed across the face of goal. Everyone was on their feet in a tantalising finale.
Final whistle and Stoke will be disspointed that they weren`t quite firing on all cylinders. The fans have picked on the team selection, and I have to agree in some cases. Pennant should have started with Shotton at right-back as they pose the best attacking threat on the right flank, and perhaps Fuller should have been at least on the bench for that other striking option, especially with Jones failing to do much.
But a point is a point and the position we are in the league is still a healthy one as we head into the January transfer window. We need to pull out the stops against Wigan however otherwise paying fans won`t be best pleased. They`ll be determined to end 2011 on a high, especially against a side that embarrassed us on the last home game of last season to secure safety.
Sorensen, Woodgate (70), Huth, Shawcross, Wilson, Shotton, Whitehead, Palacios (67), Jones, Walters
Subs: Begovic, Upson, Wilkinson, Diao, Pennant (70), Delap (67), Jerome
Guzan, Warnock, Collins, Dunne, Cuellar, Clark, N`Zogbia, Petrov, Albrighton, Agbonlahor, Hesky (45)
Subs: Marshall, Ireland, Banna, Johnson, Gardner, Delfouneso (45), Weimann