Sturdy Stoke rule at Britannia

Stoke City 3 Brentford 2
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The Independent Online

Steve Coppell, the Brentford manager, told his team to savour the occasion as they prepared for Saturday's collision of the Second Division's two form teams at the Britannia Stadium.

''I told them to take a good look around," Coppell said. "You look at the excellent facilities here, the big crowd, the passionate support and you appreciate that this is what professional football is all about. You have to cope with that kind of atmosphere if you're going to progress.''

Not that Coppell regarded defeat in a game which had offered Brentford the chance to establish a club record of eight successive victories as too great a setback. While Stoke took the spoils in this highly competitive and entertaining contest, extending their own run to eight wins and two draws in 10 games, both teams look equipped to sustain a promotion challenge.

This is Stoke's fourth campaign since they were relegated from the First Division and it is now 17 seasons since they graced the top flight and 27 since they played in Europe. Yet there are still few clubs outside the Premiership that can match their potential.

With home crowds booming – 16,828 and 17,953 have watched the last two games at the impressive Britannia – you would have expected Stoke financially to out-muscle their rivals at this level. However, the years of disappointment have taken their toll and Gudjon Thordarson, the manager, is having to wheel and deal as the club grapples with debts of more than £6m.

Having sold Peter Thorne and Graham Kavanagh to Cardiff this year, Thordarson was not best pleased last week when his fellow Icelanders who own Stoke refused to allow him to sign Petur Marteinsson on a free transfer. They said the Icelandic international's wage demands were too high.

Icelanders are not the only imports at the Britannia. The match-winner here was a Belarus international described by Coppell as the best central defender in the division. Sergei Shtanyuk, signed from Dynamo Moscow, was outstanding in defence and with 12 minutes remaining went upfield to meet Bjarni Gudjonsson's corner with a thunderous header.

The result was harsh on Brentford, who know all about coping on limited resources. Coppell, working at this level for the first time in his career, has made few changes to last season's squad, who finished only 14th, though the loan signings of Ben Burgess and Steve Sidwell, from Blackburn and Arsenal respectively, have been an instant success.

For periods Brentford looked the more accomplished team. Gavin Mahon and Sidwell prompted intelligently from midfield, while Burgess and Lloyd Owusu regularly threatened in attack. Both scored equalisers, Burgess with a clever hooked shot into the top corner (the first goal Stoke had conceded at home in 553 minutes) and Owusu with an exquisitely chipped finish after a mistake by Peter Handyside.

Stoke, however, looked physically stronger, particularly in attack, and in Peter Hoekstra they had a forward capable of turning the game with flashes of inspiration. The former Ajax forward laid on his team's first two goals, whipping in a clever cross to the near post for Brynjar Gunnarsson to head home and taking advantage of Darren Powell's slip to set up Chris Iwelumo.

Victory away to Wigan tomorrow will take Stoke to the top of the table. On this evidence they could be hard to dislodge.

Goals: Gunnarsson (30) 1-0; Burgess (45) 1-1; Iwelumo (47) 2-1; Owusu (54) 2-2, Shtaniuk (78) 3-2.

Stoke City (4-4-2): Cutler; Thomas, Handyside, Shtanyuk, Clarke; Gudjonsson, Gunnarsson, Vandeurzen, Neal (Cooke, 69); Iwelumo (Rowson, 80), Hoekstra. Substitutes not used: Ward (gk), Goodfellow, Smart.

Brentford (4-4-2): Gottskalksson; Dobson, Powell, Ingimarsson, Anderson (McCammon, 90); O'Connor (Rowlands, 72), Mahon, Sidwell, Hutchinson (Williams, 81); Burgess, Owusu. Substitutes not used: P Smith (gk), J Smith.

Referee: D Pugh (Bebington).

Bookings: Stoke City: Vandeurzen, Gunnarsson, Thomas, Cooke. Brentford: Sidwell, Anderson, Powell, Rowlands.

Man of the match: Mahon.

Attendance: 17,953.

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