ALBION boosted their chances of finishing as the Midlands’ top-placed club for the second season running with a hard-fought draw at Stoke.
After a poor first-half, it was the Baggies who looked the more likely winners after the break but despite their territorial advantage, goalscoring chances proved hard to come by.
Steve Clarke’s side did have a late scare when sub Kenwyne Jones volleyed straight at the impressive Ben Foster deep into stoppage time.
But had Jones converted, it would have been rough justice on the Baggies who recorded their second clean sheet in three away games.
The result kept intact Albion’s ten-point cushion on the men from the Potteries, with their other Midlands rivals, Villa, a further four points adrift.
Eighth visited 11th at a windswept Britannia Stadium.
Clarke made one enforced change as Jerome Thomas was handed his first start in six games in place of the injured Graham Dorrans. The Baggies were boosted by the return to the bench of Shane Long after an ankle problem but Steven Reid missed his second successive game (groin).
Tony Pulis also made one change as Matthew Etherington returned from injury in place of the benched Andy Wilkinson.
Albion started positively and Stoke right-back Ryan Shotton almost conceded a penalty inside two minutes when he hacked down Thomas right on the edge of the area. From the ensuing free-kick, James Morrison squared the ball to Romelu Lukaku and it took a fine block by Steven Nzonzi to prevent the Belgian international’s 12-yard effort troubling Asmir Begovic’s goal.
City attacked for the first time in the fourth minute but Cameron Jerome was well off target with a header from Etherington’s centre.
Albion were soon back on the front foot and after a sweeping move, Morrison fed Chris Brunt whose first-time 18-yard drive was nervously spilled by Begovic, who gathered at the second attempt.
Stoke hit back with a couple of wayward long-range shots as the game descended into a scrappy affair. Albion easily soaked up Stoke’s succession of long balls and, at the other end, tried to unlock the hosts’ well-drilled defence with patient play.
It wasn’t until the 28th minute that the next effort at goal arrived, when an off-balance Peter Crouch headed wide from Glenn Whelan’s corner.
However, Albion had a bigger scare a minute later when Jonathan Walters’ ambitious drive took a wicked deflection off Jonas Olsson and arced just wide of the far post.
Stoke were starting to get on top as the game passed the half-hour mark but Clarke’s men stuck to their guns and gradually regained a foothold in proceedings.
An instantly forgettable half came to a close moments after Marc Wilson planted a 25-yard free-kick low into the Albion wall.
Stoke rang a change at half-time as Dean Whitehead , Stoke’s match-winner at The Hawthorns earlier this season, replaced Whelan – but it was Albion who started the second 45 more purposefully.
In the 47th minute, Thomas swung over a cross from the left and Lukaku planted a downward header straight at Begovic.
Moments later, Crouch won an aerial duel of his own in the Albion box to meet Etherington’s centre but his tame header looped onto the roof of the net.
But Albion were soon back on the attack as they began to exert pressure on the City goal. After a flowing move from right to left, Lukaku came within a whisker of connecting with Liam Ridgewell’s centre and Wilson was forced into a vital clearance inside the hosts’ six-yard box.
Moments later, the ball sat up nicely for Brunt 30 yards out but he failed to hit the target with a left-foot volley.
City had a huge let off on 62. Brunt’s driven free-kick ricocheted off the Stoke wall and straight to Billy Jones. The right-back whipped a low centre across the face of goal which bounced up off Begovic and into the unsuspecting Lukaku’s face before looping agonisingly wide of the open net.
Clarke made his first throw of the dice on 67 when he replaced Thomas with Peter Odemwingie. Within seconds of coming on, the Nigerian created a shooting chance for himself and tested Begovic from 20 yards.
Albion continued to ask all the questions but Brunt was off target with a right-footer from the edge of the area.
After Clarke replaced Lukaku with Long on 75, Youssouf Mulumbu fizzed a fine effort just over from 20 yards.
Stoke didn’t threaten again until the 80th minute but went mightily close, with Wilson sending a downward header just wide from Whitehead’s corner.
Back came Albion and Odemwingie tried his luck from distance again on 81, only to fire into Begovic’s midriff.
The Baggies have suffered so much misery on Stoke soil in recent years that hearts would have been truly in mouths among the impressive away following in the third minute of stoppage time when sub Jones chested down Geoff Cameron’s diagonal ball into the box. But the former Southampton striker volleyed straight at Foster, who caught the effort with the same confidence as everything else Stoke had thrown at him.
STOKE (4-4-2): Begovic; Shotton, Shawcross (c), Wilson, Cameron; Jerome (Adam 75), Whelan (Whitehead HT), Nzonzi, Etherington; Walters, Crouch (K Jones 63). Subs not used: Sorensen (gk), Owen, Kightly, Wilkinson.
ALBION (4-2-3-1): Foster; B Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Yacob, Mulumbu; Thomas (Odemwingie 67), Morrison (Fortune 84), Brunt (c); Lukaku (Long 75). Subs not used: Myhill (gk), Rosenberg, Popov, Tamas.
BOOKINGS: STOKE – Shotton (foul 43), Etherington (foul 59). ALBION – Brunt (time-wasting 34), Morrison (foul 45+1).
REFEREE: M Dean (Wirral).
ALBION STARMAN: Claudio Yacob.