Sub Whitehead settles tight encounter
SUB Dean Whitehead’s 75th-minute strike sentenced Albion to only their second home defeat of the season.
A game that had 0-0 written all over it was decided when the ex-Sunderland midfielder stabbed home fellow sub Michael Kightly’s cross from 12 yards.
Albion-Stoke matches are rarely classics and with the visitors continually packing plenty of men behind the ball, goalscoring chances were at an absolute premium.
However, this second successive defeat for Steve Clarke’s side was somewhat harsh.
Fourth entertained ninth at The Hawthorns as the two highest-placed Midlands clubs in the land, separated by seven points, locked horns.
There was a warming touch from the players during the pre-match warm-up as they sported ‘Get Well Soon Del’ t-shirts in support of club masseur Derrick Jones, who is currently battling with illness.
Moments before kick-off, the home crowd saluted striker Shane Long as he was presented with the club’s inaugural Zoopla Player-of-the-Month Award for November.
Markus Rosenberg was handed his first Barclays Premier League start as Clarke made six changes from the Swansea defeat.
Fit-again Steven Reid, making his first start for three months, was also recalled alongside Goran Popov, Zoltan Gera, Graham Dorrans and Long.
The men to make way were Peter Odemwingie, Chris Brunt, Romelu Lukaku, Liam Ridgewell and James Morrison, who dropped to the bench, and Billy Jones, who missed out through illness.
Tony Pulis made one enforced change as Kenwyne Jones replaced the injured Peter Crouch (face).
At a freezing Hawthorns, the first ten minutes passed by with little incident as the teams sized each up.
In truth, it was the visitors who had looked the most assertive during the opening exchanges and Albion had a let off on 14 when Jones rose highest to head inches wide from Geoff Cameron’s diagonal ball into the box.
But other than that, goalscoring chances remained at a premium. In fact, it wasn’t until the 22nd minute that there was even a hint of a threat to the City goal, when Ryan Shawcross produced a wonderful last-ditch challenge to prevent Dorrans getting on the end of Rosenberg’s smart first-time through-ball.
Albion recorded their first shots of the game in quick succession in the 27th minute when Rosenberg and Youssouf Mulumbu had efforts blocked by Robert Huth and Shawcross in quick succession.
Moments later, Dorrans caught the City defence napping when he controlled a throw-in and smashed an effort across the face of goal.
Stoke threatened down their left on 34 but Gareth McAuley was in the right place to divert away Matthew Etherington’s dangerous low cross.
Reid took extreme measures to break the deadlock on 36 when he launched a free-kick a yard inside the Stoke half goalwards. The ball was looping in and Asmir Begovic had to palm the effort over for a corner.
Albion had begun to enjoy the territorial advantage since the half’s midpoint but Stoke were making life extremely difficult for them by packing players on the edge of their box.
The half-time whistle brought to an end a forgettable first 45.
The Baggies started the second period on the front foot but Begovic had an easy save to make when Jonas Olsson looped a header goalwards from Long’s cross.
Albion were slowly building up a head of steam and, on 56, Rosenberg cut in from the left and saw an 18-yard strike loop just wide off Shawcross’s thigh. From Dorrans’ ensuing corner, Claudio Yacob headed straight at Begovic from ten yards.
Clarke made his first changes on 64, replacing Rosenberg and Gera with Lukaku and Odemwingie.
Albion continued to keep Stoke pegged back but were having to work tirelessly to get any change out of Stoke’s well-drilled rearguard action.
Stoke’s first threatening moment of the second half came on 69 when Jones burst through down the left – but Olsson kept him at bay with a well-timed last-ditch tackle.
But, on 75, came the sucker punch. Michael Kightly collected a loose ball and charged in from the right before seeing his low cross poked home by fellow sub Dean Whitehead from 12 yards.
Albion kept prodding and probing but Boaz Myhill was called into action for the first time on 78 when held Jones’ snapshot from just inside the Baggies box.
Back came Albion but Begovic was equal to Popov’s 25-yard grass-cutter.
Begovic had to pull off a fine save seven minutes from time to push away Dorrans’ rising 20-yarder. The ball came back to the Scotsman, who volleyed straight at the City keeper.
Dorrans had another crack from range in the final minutes of stoppage time but fired a yard over.
ALBION (4-2-3-1): Myhill; Reid, McAuley, Olsson (c), Popov; Yacob (Brunt 82), Mulumbu; Rosenberg (Lukaku 64), Gera (Odemwingie 64), Dorrans; Long. Subs not used: L Daniels (gk), Ridgewell, Morrison, Tamas.
STOKE (4-5-1): Begovic; Shotton, Shawcross (c), Huth, Cameron; Walters, Whelan, Nzonzi, Adam (Whitehead 65), Etherington (Kightly 60); Jones. Subs not used: Sorensen (gk), Palacios, Upson, Wilkinson, Edu.
GOALS: STOKE – Whitehead (75).
BOOKINGS: STOKE – Huth (foul 35), Adam (foul 44), Shawcross (foul 49).
REFEREE: K Friend (Leicestershire).
ALBION STARMAN: Graham Dorrans.