Some Stoke fans have been questioning their manager's judgement lately. First for allowing the popular Tuncay Sanli and the frustrated Eidur Gudjohnsen to leave the club, then for picking a line-up at Liverpool in midweek that, in their assessment, seemed to lack ambition.
If ever a performance could be offered as vindication, then this was it. With no apologies for reverting to the tried and trusted Stoke formula, Tony Pulis saw his team mount an aerial barrage of such ferocity that Sunderland, even though they twice took the lead on a ground where they had not scored in the Premier League, still cracked in the end.
The winner came late – in thethird of four added minutes – but somehow it was inevitable that the stream of free-kicks and throw-ins towards Stoke's towering targets in the penalty area would conjure a home victory.
Their three goals were all scored within the six-yard box; one after a typical Rory Delap throw, the other two coming from free-kicks by Jermaine Pennant, whose delivery could not have been more finely honed. They were ugly goals, two controversial and possibly illegal. But to Pulis they were things of beauty.
Steve Bruce, not surprisingly, was less enchanted. Kieran Richardson, continuing his goalscoring run, had put Sunderland in front after two minutes, driving the ball past Asmir Begovic after Asamoah Gyan had met Phil Bardsley's threaded ball with an air-shot. When John Carew equalised after 32 minutes, scoring his first for Stoke and his first for anyone in 15 games, the goal probably should not have stood.
The former Aston Villa striker had only Anton Ferdinand ahead of him when Robert Huth challenged Craig Gordon in the air but Stephen Child, the assistant referee who did not see that Louis Saha was offside when he scored for Everton against Arsenal in midweek, failed to notice.
Then, after Gyan had restored Sunderland's advantage three minutes into the second half – outmuscling Huth after the impressive debutant Sulley Muntari had chipped a clever pass into his path – Carew got away with another infringement, the ball evidently brushing his arm as he lunged at Pennant's inswinging free-kick. Huth applied the final touch and referee Lee Probert saw nothing wrong.
Bruce reserved most of his ire for his defenders and for Gordon, who had a shaky afternoon, but felt he had a raw deal from the officials. "Craig needed to be stronger, to stand up to the challenge and that goes for the defenders, too," he said. "But you need the officials to do their jobs properly and they haven't done it."
There was no excuse for Stoke's third, thumped in by Huth stealing in on the blind side at the back post, but by then the damage was done – and, in so far as popularity goes, for Pulis, perhaps repaired.
Referee: Lee Probert
Man of the match: Pennant