Usain Bolt, the world's fastest man, has been invited to throw a few shapes in the nightclubs of Stoke by his old mate Ricardo Fuller. But the party started without him at a frenzied Britannia Stadium yesterday. An injury-time goal by substitute Mamady Sidibe gave a fairytale finish to City's first home game in the top division for 23 years.
Fuller, the Jamaican striker and a childhood friend of Bolt's, thought he had won it when he put City 2-1 ahead with nine minutes left only for Villa's captain, Martin Laursen, to equalise two minutes later. No matter, for Stoke piled forward one last time and Sidibe, a second-half replacement for Dave Kitson, got his head to one of Rory Delap's missiles from the left touchline and the ball bounced inside Brad Friedel's far post.
Stoke are odds-on favourites for the drop even with chairman Peter Coates's firm Bet 365, while Villa are the most capable challengers outside of the 'big four'.
So much for the form book. "I'm not a gambling man," Stoke's manager, Tony Pulis, said. "It was a terrific three points where everything flowed. The fans were fantastic and we have to make that a regular occurrence. We will need to win games here if we're going to be OK."
Villa were the first visitors at the old Victoria Ground in Stoke's last season in the top flight, in 1984-85. The home team lost that one 3-1 and finished well adrift at the bottom after being beaten in each of their last 10 matches. If last weekend's reverse at Bolton punctured their belief, you wouldn't have guessed it. Villa's manager Martin O'Neill had warned his team to expect tougher challenges after last weekend's cakewalk against Manchester City and Pulis's men soon added weight to the Ulsterman's worries.
Delap launched one of his speciality throw-ins towards Friedel in the opening minute only for Leon Cort to hit the ball wide. Villa, unchanged from last weekend, thought they had a decent penalty claim when Seyi Olofinjana made contact with Gabriel Agbonlahor but referee Mark Halsey disagreed, much to the dismay of last week's hat-trick scorer and his manager.
O'Neill was still fuming when Stoke went up the other end and won a penalty themselves. Nicky Shorey lost possession and when Laursen tried to clear the danger, he took Delap's legs and Halsey pointed to the spot. Liam Lawrence rolled the ball low to Friedel's right.
The place erupted and Fuller could have added fireworks but headed another throw from Delap narrowly wide in the first half.
Villa came out after the break with a bit more purpose. Having survived another penalty appeal when Stiliyan Petrov appeared to handle a Lawrence cross, Villa began to find space and brought Ashley Young into the game. The winger's trickery helped pull the team level after 63 minutes, and his deft backheel into John Carew's path was finished beautifully by the big Norwegian striker.
But Stoke were ahead again after Gareth Barry gave away possession in the middle of the field and the excellent Lawrence sent Fuller scampering between Luke Young and Laursen. Bolt himself would have acknowledged Fuller's turn of pace and the finish was equally as good. A Jamaica banner was seen among the celebrating Stoke hordes but, just when it looked like being their flag day, Laursen turned in Young's free-kick for a scrappy equaliser. However Sidibe rose to the challenge and ensured a thrilling game ended in a famous victory for Stoke.
"It was vital to get some points on the board for confidence and belief," said captain Andy Griffin. "It was a full house and the fans made a lot of noise. I think they enjoyed themselves and that helped us out on the pitch."
Villa's O'Neill added: "I'm happy with the amount of goals we're scoring but we need to cut down on the number we are conceding. It was disappointing not to defend that final throw."Reuse content