I`m currently suffering from utter speechlessness, and not just because my voice box has been ruined again; Stoke City have been a fine example of the sheer passion that emulates in the Potteries, all of which was captured on stunning high definition! As the red and white blood pumps around my aching face, and the feeling of the inevitable empty headedness after my vocal projections killed some brain cells, the only word that rattles around my body is “WEMBLEY”. Hence the title.
Right. Now time to peel myself off from the ceiling and write the match report.
Defender Danny Higginbotham was hailed the hero as his 63rd-minute strike sealed the deal in a 2-1 victory over The Hammers. Revenge was especially sweet as West Ham hammered Stoke last week 3-0. So not only a win, but a place in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. It will be Stoke`s first FA Cup semi-final appearance since 1972 and their first time at the New Wembley. Taxi for Avram Grant to London? Yeah, and now for Tony Pulis too please.
On a lovely sunny day, Thomas Sorensen was picked ahead of Asmir Begovic who was rested from the team. Danny Higginbotham took back his position at left back from Danny Pugh. Rory Delap featured in the centre of midfield along with Glenn Whelan who was favoured over Dean Whitehead, whilst wingers Jermaine Pennant and Mathew Etherington occupied the wide flanks. Kenwyne Jones and Jon Walters headed the attack as John Carew suffered an injury earlier in the week.
Stoke shone through immediately as they started brightly, much to the encouragement of Potters fans who donned the shades out in the sun.
The first effort of the game came in the second minute when Walters passed wide to Pennant, who then whipped in a blinding cross into the area. Etherington shot into the box, beating his marker, and got up to flash in a header. But Robert Green displayed excellent goalkeeping as his reflex action made the stop.
Another attack early on involved Etherington setting up Walters just on the edge of the box. Etherington did superbly with his pace and trickery to beat the defence and pass to Walters. But he had back to goal so his shot on the spin flew over the bar.
Stoke continued the momentum and managed to score the first GOAL not long after. A throw was given to Stoke so Rory Delap wound up his slingshot and flung one in at what seemed 90mph. Yet again Robert Huth links up with the throw to head it home and edge Stoke closer to a Wembley clash.
Although slightly stunned, West Ham had an opportunity to pull it back level. Mark Noble unleashed a low, 25-yard strike. But the Great Dane Thomas Sorensen scooped up the ball with not much difficulty.
As the Potters dominated, the Hammers got frustrated, and so Victor Obinna commited a challenge on Higginbotham that earned him a place in the book.
But frustration for Hammers turned into relief as they equalised on the 30th minute with a very controversial GOAL. Hitzlsperger gathered the ball in his own half and hoofed up an inch perfect through ball to pick out Piquionne. Despite his offside position, and the ball blatantly being controlled by his arm; the linesman didn`t raise his flag and the ref didn`t blow his whistle.
Piquionne lobbed the ball over Sorensen to then kick Stoke in the teeth by bundling the ball over the line despite Robert Huth best efforts to clear.
Potters fans were in uproar over the goal but the Hammers were of course going to accept it as it was. A combination of linesman and referee was really to blame and ITV`s cameras proved just that. Especially when it showed Piquionne being asked by a fellow team mate if he had used his arm in the build up, and him nodding in confirmation.
The lunge from Huth did injure Piguionne however, so five minutes after attempting to carry on led to him going down again in pain. He was swiftly substituted by Jonathan Spector.
Hitzlsperger and da Costa went into the book for a foul each on Glen Whelan not long before the end of the first half.
Stoke had a glorious opportunity to regain the lead during added time. Delap’s put in a cross that was too close to the ‘keeper, but Green only managed to palm it back out into play. Walters was there at the near post and fired a cracker goalwards on the spin, but Green was there to make the block.
Half time and fans around the ground were mightily disappointed that Stoke were unable to retain the lead, especially as it was through a refereeing blunder. But the sun was still shining and so moods were positive. Especially the child in front of me who made an FA Cup that was constructed out of cardboard and tinfoil, with the words ‘Stoke City FTW` felt-tipped on the front. He still persisted on waving it around with a smile on his face which was nice to see. If only he could have held it still in one place… then my face would have been shaded from the blinding sun.
Second half commenced and within 14 seconds of kick-off a PENALTY was awarded! Stoke fans didn`t even have chance to swallow the last bit of tea before they spat it back out again in the amazement! Oh, just me on that one then?
Etherington charged down the wing with the ball and managing to penetrate the area, but a combination of Tomkins and Parker brought the winger down to the ground.
Referee Mike Jones pointed to the spot and so Etherington stepped up to the spot. Etherington went for placement over power which gave Green a better chance to get a hand to it, which he did. The ‘keeper dived low to his left and saved superbly.
Captain Ryan Shawcross suffered a yellow card after a late challenge on Scott Parker. Shawcross felt the card was harsh but the ref was not interested.
A near miss for the red and white side when a Mathew Etherington corner was headed back across goal by Higginbotham, which caught Green in no-man`s-land. Kenwyne Jones got up high and looped a header towards and ‘keeperless goal. But the goal had Carlton Cole to its rescue as he cleared off the line.
A free-kick was awarded for Stoke and Pennant looked to send a curling shot into the corner. But his shot ricocheted of Obinna`s arm. Referee Mike Jones spotted this, much to the sarcastic cheers of the Potters fans, so awarded another free kick closer to the box.
Danny Higginbotham ran up to the ball for a whole-hearted strike. The ball flew across the ground and through a gap in the wall. Robert Green got down swiftly to get a hand on it but merely sent the ball spinning towards the post, deflecting in for the second GOAL.
The stadium was like a sea of jumping-jacks as the fans raised the roof with deliria!
The Hammers were not going to let that be the nail in the coffin and so ploughed on, coming close to an equaliser on the 67th minute. Jonathon Spector crossed to Hitzlsperger who then put a through-ball to Obinna, just on the left of the area. He took a shot at goal but Sorensen did brilliantly to deny Obinna as he flung himself to his left and push the ball away.
Robbie Keane was welcomed back from injury as he replaced Obinna straight afterwards. A fresh approach in attack perhaps was what Avram Grant looked to achieve.
However Stoke`s attack was still in full flow when Pennant had a chance to make it 3-1. Some pace and passing created a move that was easy on the eye. But Pennant was slightly off balance as his shot flew wide.
West Ham began to take control of the game as they desperately searched for a second equaliser. Tomkins whipped in a cross for Keane and he took a clever shot from the near post. Thomas Sorrensen was not prepared to be beaten though as he dived for the save.
81 minutes had gone and it was time for Stoke`s first change. Dean Whitehead ran onto the pitch in replacement of Jermaine Pennant who received a standing ovation. Zavon Hines also came on for Mark Noble.
Hammers fans through their arms in the air for a penalty plea after Jon Walters fought off an persistent Tompkins when both looked to get a foot on the ball. Both went down, and the referee was not convinced it was a foul.
A shaky moment for both the Potters and their crossbar as Matthew Upson`s header from a Hitzlsperger delivered corner clattered the bar and back into play, only for the ball to be nervously cleared by the defence.
Nail-biting times as Stoke battled it out to see it through to the final whistle.
Carlton Cole came close on the 89th minute as he let rip a shot, but Sorensen turned it away for a corner.
Time-wasting tactics perfectly executed as Pulis substituted Jones for Fuller on 90 minutes.
But not long after Fuller`s introduction and he was booked for tripping up Wayne Bridge. Fuller was unleashed in a counter-attack that offered him loads of space, but Fuller didn`t judge his timings correctly and so an opportunity to shoot was not taken. Bridge got back and nicked the ball off Fuller, only for Fuller to stick out a leg in frustration.
Danny Collins came on for Mathew Etherington to see out the remaining 2 minutes of game time.
Every claret and blue shirt was in the red and white half as they clutched at straws. But the referee finally blew his whistle after what seemed a life-long extra time!
Jumping-Jacks, Screaming-Steves and Mad-Maxes made up the sheer ear-piercing noise that filled every corner of the Britannia Stadium. A truly cracking match that made some good TV, and made a great Sunday of football. Now excuse me while I desperately find some Lozenges.
WE`RE ON OUR WAY TO WEMBLEY!!
Sorensen, Wilson, Shawcross, Huth, Higginbotham, Pennant (Whitehead, 81), Delap, Whelan, Etherington (Collins, 92) Walters, Jones (Fuller, 90)
Subs not used: Nash, Pugh, Diao, Wilkinson.
West Ham United
Green, da Costa, Tomkins, Upson, Bridge, Noble (Hines, 81), Parker, Hitzlsperger, Piquionne (Spector, 35), Cole, Obinna (Keane, 68)
Subs not used: Boffin, Gabbidon, Boa Morte, Jacobsen.
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