Football: Stoke's time to stay level-headed

Stoke City 0 Gillingham 0 Attendance:17,233
CLEAR THOUGH they are at the top of the Second Division, Stoke were given a taste of what lies ahead in a difficult month when fifth- placed Gillingham held them at bay with a fair degree of comfort yesterday. Now Stoke face two other close challengers, Walsall and Preston, and then Manchester City.

Gillingham had brought with them a 13-match unbeaten run and a better recent record than Stoke's. They also carried a reputation, acquired this season, for being well-organised and uncompromising in defence. What was evident in addition yesterday was an ability to get upfield quickly and to threaten through the close control and predatory running of Carl Asaba, scorer of 11 goals so far.

With their diminutive striker Simon Sturridge operating in the shadow of a Gillingham rearguard ably marshalled by Adrian Pennock, Stoke did not need long to work out that aerial attacks were relatively futile.

The dangers of giving Gillingham a look-in were swiftly shown when Larus Sigurdsson gave the ball away to Asaba, who sent Robert Taylor for a shot which had Carl Muggleton sprawling full length to his left to clutch.

Gillingham's goalkeeper, Vince Bartram, got into the action eventually when Kyle Lightbourne's free-kick was hit straight at him, but the Stoke man came closer to opening the scoring 10 minutes before half-time. Chris Short's plundering run took him to the byline and his pull-back was driven just wide by Lightbourne.

As Stoke piled on the pressure just before half-time, Kevin Keen curved his shot into the side-netting and David Oldfield's effort was caught by Bartram diving to his right.

Ray Wallace, who replaced Short at the start of the second half, lacked none of his predecessor's enterprise and made impressive progress down the right for a cross which Lightbourne again directed wide by inches, this time with his head.

After an hour, Sturridge was withdrawn and though his replacement, Dean Crowe, was also giving away a lot of height to Gillingham's back line, he rapidly started giving them trouble. One glorious reverse pass sent Lightbourne clear into the penalty area but he was crowded out by two defenders.

Gillingham still looked threatening on their breakaways. From one of these Muggleton punched away from Taylor, injuring the Gillingham striker in the process, then both Asaba and Paul Smith tested the Stoke goalkeeper's reactions. Five minutes from the end, as Gillingham's defence began to unravel, Bartram earned his side two points with a brilliant one-handed stop to deny Lightbourne.