Stoke City 3 Aston Villa 2: Sidibe strike sinks Villa and stokes City's hopes
Monday 25 August 2008
If Stoke are going to survive in the Premier League and upset odds that have been stacked against such a feat the formula is quite simple: draw deeply on reserves of character and achieve well beyond your means. Maintaining that approach over the course of a season is quite a challenge, of course, but Saturday's display met both criteria.
Stoke, hosting their first game in the top division for 23 years, twice had their lead pegged back by a much-fancied Aston Villa team yet finally, thrillingly, won the game with the last move of the afternoon, deep into injury-time.
Their triumph turned on events shaped by a manager and a player operating at the top level for the first time in careers that have not exactly hogged the nation's back pages. Tony Pulis, sacked once by Stoke and now 100 games into his second spell, and his Mali striker, Mamady Sidibe, whose life has been anything but straightforward, have both served their time in the lower reaches and could be forgiven for finding the step up somewhat daunting. Neither seems to do so.
Pulis, a study in concentration and focus in the technical area, made five changes to the team beaten on the opening day at Bolton and another three during this match. The key substitution was replacing Dave Kitson, the club's record £5.5m signing from Reading who was not at his best, with the unheralded Sidibe after 76 minutes.
Villa were looking the more likely winners then, at 1-1. Stoke regained the advantage through Ricardo Fuller's exquisite strike but again Villa levelled as Martin Laursen prodded home Ashley Young's free-kick. It would be all Stoke could do to hold on for a point, you thought, yet Sidibe got his head to one of Rory Delap's missiles from the left touchline – the throw-in was measured at 38 metres – and an historic first Premier League win was in the bag.
If it was a significant moment for Stoke – the Britannia Stadium was a cauldron of noise – for Sidibe it was doubtless rather run-of-the-mill. This is a man, lest we forget, who was almost killed in a riot following an African Nations Cup game for Mali against Togo last October, when opposition fans knocked him unconscious and delivered so many savage blows to his body that he suffered severed veins and almost bled to death.
"He nearly got killed, he was very, very lucky and he's still got the scars to show that," said Pulis. "There were always issues about whether or not he would play for his country again but he's got over that. He's such a lovely lad, a real gem. He's fine now."
Sidibe is not noted for his goals, although a tally of four last season can be forgiven. His captain, Andy Griffin, said: "Mama is powerful, tall and strong and we do play a direct style here, so if you play a diagonal ball into him, he can flick it on in the box, which is a strength of ours," he said. "We'd have been delighted whoever got the goal as long as we won, but when he got it there was a little smile on everyone's faces because he's a gentleman off the pitch."
Villa's manager, Martin O'Neill, whose team first fell behind to a penalty from Liam Lawrence, cited John Carew's fine equaliser as a moment of quality but bemoaned his team's defending. "They're very dangerous but we thought we had resolved the problems of coping with them," he said. "We had one last [long throw] to deal with and whether it was a bit of luck or what, the ball ended up in our net. One thing ... in the last minute of a game is if you can't win it, then at least don't lose it."
Goals: Lawrence pen (30) 1-0; Carew (63) 1-1; Fuller (80) 2-1; Laursen (83) 2-2; Sidibe (90) 3-2.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen; Griffin, Cort, Abdoulaye Faye, Dickinson; Lawrence, Olofinjana, Amdy Faye (Diao, 72), Delap; Kitson (Sidibe, 76), Fuller (Cresswell, 87). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Shawcross, Wilkinson, Whelan.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Young, Laursen, Davies, Shorey (Routledge, 73); Reo-Coker, Petrov, Barry, Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk); Knight, Osbourne, Gardner, Salifou, Harewood.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Stoke Kitson.
Man of the match: Lawrence.
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