Horrible conditions at the Britannia Stadium meant that this game was never destined to be a classic, nor was the performance ever going to be as rip-roaring as the 3-0 win over Norwich City, but a thoroughly professional performance from back to front ensured that we walked away, freezing cold, but elated with all three points. Not to mention finally putting that Stoke jinx to bed.
Now join us as we recap the game in it's entirety in our match report...
One change in the starting line-up for Sunderland, but also a change of formation as David Meyler made his first start of the season and Fraizer Campbell found himself on the bench. Given his recent return from injury, and the conditions today it was a wise ploy by Martin O'Neill. All this of course left Stephane Sessegnon for forage a lone path in attack. New boys Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos made the bench.
The first fifteen minutes of the game were about as cagey as I've ever witnessed, as both teams tried to come to terms with an incredibly difficult pitch. Far from the potential quagmire the pitch could have become, it was more icy and bouncy than ever meaning keeping the ball down was the order of the day, something we were clearly set-up to do and did seem to be trying.
Ad for who won the battle of the opening fifteen to twenty minutes, pretty much even The hosts had a couple of corners which came to nothing whilst we offered a stubborn resistance, however little up front as Craig Gardner attempted to link-up with Sessegnon at every opportunity. Not a single chance was created in that time.
A mild spell of pressure for us came following the opening throws, Gardner and Sessegnon both had shots blocked from inside the area. We even had a corner which came to nothing, but it was a start. Perhaps the best opening of the entire first half an hour fell to Sess, who had a shot from the edge of the area go narrowly wide.
Simon Mignolet, who'd been a bit of a bystander to this point, had something to seal with when Walters laid the ball out wide following a good run and Mignolet got an excellent fist on both the ball and Cameron Jerome to clear.
The fact I've even mentioned this is indicative of just how little was happening. That was exactly what we want though to be honest. Such a difficult game to judge the play. Nothing was happening as said. We're we doing well or not? I happened to think things were going swimmingly as the half-time whistle drew ever nearer.
On the stroke of half-time, finally, an incident! A red card for Robert Huth as he went flying in to David Meyler. In real time, it looked a horror challenge. On the replay Meyler did well to get out the way of it, Huth didn't really touch him that much, nor did he have two feet raised. Still, the referee only gets to see things once, and at first glance it looked bad, so whilst Pulis remonstrated, there was a case for the official.
That little bit of drama was the last action of the half. Or perhaps the only action.
Second half started nice and brightly. An early corner for the lads eventually after some bobbling around lead to Stephane Sessegnon heading inches over and on to the roof of Thomas Sorensen's net.
A relatively inactive period followed, Stoke City trying to utilise some set-pieces to no avail, before Sebastien Larsson lead a wonderful breakaway. Strangely he decided to try and play in fellow breaker-awayer Kieran Richardson. It never made it to him, and the shot was very much on for the Swede.
On the hour though there finally was a breakthrough. We'd been the better side in the second half, and it was rewarded when James McClean gave us the lead. A lovely through ball saw McClean being tracked by Wilkinson as he headed into the area. Struggling to shake off his attentions, along came Ryan Shawcross to miss the ball and remove Wilkinson from the fray. From then on it was a simple finish for McClean to put the ball under Sorensen from around eight yards.
Special mention in the goal should go to the Stoke groundsman too though. Snow continued to fall throughout the game, and at half time it was cleared. Well it was from Stoke's penalty area, ours remained covered in snow. So, thanks for that, I know you were seeking an advantage, but it actually helped McClean keep his balance.
Stoke did try and get back into things though, Walters and Delap both had drives towards goal of varying quality.whilst Peter Crouch was the only one to force Mignolet in to a save with a close-range header.
That was about it for a while as Stoke seemed to struggle with only ten men, and we seemed fully prepared to put up shop and bring to an end what was an accomplished and professional job given the horrendous pitch.
There was still time for Riccardo Fuller to get a very decent strike in on goal which Mignolet was equal to as we entered the final ten minutes of the game, but there was little beyond that as we kept the ball well, took our time over everything and made sure we escaped with all three points.
Team (Ratings in brackets)
Starting XI: Mignolet (6), Bardsley (6), Turner (6), O'Shea (6), Richardson (7), Larsson (6), Colback (6), Gardner (7), Meyler (7), McClean (7), Sessegnon (6)
Subs Used: Elmohamady (6)
Man Of The Match: James McClean - Continuing his rich form, McClean had a fine game today. Not only staying calm and keeping his balance well to score the only goal of the game, but put in a great shift down the left-hand side too to keep the hosts at bay all afternoon. An honourable mention should go to David Meyler too. In his first start in ages he kept things moving well and did plenty of the dirty work, despite being booted from pillar to post. Kieran Richardson certainly in with a shout too, lets not have his great work missed out either.
A win at Stoke was always going to be both difficult and unlikely, but you have to give a massive credit to the lads for sticking to their game-plan throughout and taking one of the very few chances that were created this afternoon.
The performance was exceptional, yet typical of us under O'Neill. Nothing fancy, figuring the game out in the opening twenty minutes and taking it from there and turning things in our advantage, an absolute pleasure to watch, and we've now turned the corner completely into a whole new team.
The Party With Marty Never Ends.