Stoke City 3 Sunderland 2

BEING a goalkeeper at the Britannia Stadium is a bit like being a contestant on the Channel Four game show Deal Or No Deal.

You know exactly what to expect, because the format never changes. Every three or four minutes, you have to decide whether to be bold and aggressive or play the percentages. And throughout the entire proceedings, you're never really sure what's going on inside your box.

Craig Gordon was not the only Sunderland player at fault as Stoke twice came from behind to record a thrilling 3-2 victory on Saturday, but as the last line of defence against an inevitable aerial bombardment, the Scotsman's failings were most obvious.

Unnerved by a physical pounding at the hands of John Carew, Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth, Gordon was left floundering as Stoke did what Stoke do best.

Attractive? You've got to be joking, with Rory Delap hurling a succession of long throws into the penalty area like a javelin thrower who has decided he can do without his spear. Enlightened? Not exactly, with Stoke's stone-age tactics revolving around a succession of set pieces delivered towards the head of one of their towering targets. But effective? Check the league table this morning and you'll see the Potters sitting in a lofty ninth position.

Stoke playing in Europe? Hopefully only if one of Delap's throws misses its target and lands in France.

Yet for all that it is possible to bemoan the limits of Stoke's aesthetic ambitions, their opponents have to deal with the aerial assault that comes their way. Sunderland didn't, and that's why they watched a winning position turn into a 3-2 defeat, just as they had at Wolves in November.

There are mitigating factors, not least the wretched performance of referee Lee Probert, who gave Stoke's players carte blanche to muscle Gordon out of the way and awarded two goals that should never have stood.

Carew was in an offside position when he bundled home Stoke's first equaliser towards the end of the first half, Huth was similarly illegally placed when he prodded home a second leveller with seven minutes left. To make matters worse, on that occasion, the former Middlesbrough defender only received the ball because it came off Carew's arm.

But refereeing inadequacies were not sufficient to explain the sense of chaos that was apparent every time the ball was propelled into the Sunderland box, particularly in the final ten minutes of the game.

Why wasn't Gordon more decisive? Why didn't the likes of Titus Bramble and Anton Ferdinand take more responsibility for heading the ball away? Why concede so many free-kicks and throw ins in the first place, and effectively invite Stoke to play their preferred game?

“You've got to be prepared to take a knock and go and dominate your penalty area,” conceded a shell-shocked Steve Bruce. “We didn't do that. You also need the officials to be brave enough, and I'm sorry, two of the goals shouldn't have been allowed.

“But that said, we should still be doing better in those situations. With the first goal, I would expect my goalkeeper to claim that, and with the second I would expect the defence to clear the ball. All three goals were very avoidable.

“It's up to other people to take a view on how the referee handled the game. From where I was standing, he didn't do very well, but that doesn't hide the fact that we have to defend better. It should be meat and drink really, but we conceded goals to three pretty basic balls into the box.”

The third, which came in the third minute of stoppage time, was the decisive one, with Huth sliding in at the back post to convert another perfectly-judged free-kick from Jermaine Pennant.

The strike inflicted Sunderland's second defeat of the week, and rendered the positive play that had peppered much of the previous 90 minutes irrelevant.

Ironically, in open play, Bruce's decision to field three centre-halves had been a master stroke, with John Mensah in particular preventing Carew and Kenwyne Jones from striking up any kind of partnership in attack.

Sunderland's own forward play was bright and inventive, with Sulley Muntari providing the security that was so lacking against Chelsea at the base of midfield and fellow new signing Stephane Sessegnon causing no end of problems with his incisive running.

Kieran Richardson, enjoying a new lease of life in an attacking midfield role, was prominent throughout, and his fourth goal in the space of three games opened the scoring after the ball had broken somewhat fortuitously two minutes in.

Asamoah Gyan restored Sunderland's advantage three minutes after the break, out-muscling Huth as he latched on to Muntari's through ball, and the game might well have been safe had Asmir Begovic not turned Richardson's strike around the post with 15 minutes left.

As it was, Stoke mounted an aerial stage, and Sunderland's defensive barricades were repeatedly ripped asunder.

“We've prided ourselves on defending well all season, but in the last week we haven't done our jobs properly,” said Bruce. “We gave away bad goals against Chelsea, and we've given away more bad goals here.”

Match facts


0-1: Richardson (2mins, rifled tenyard shot into roof of the net after Gyan miscontrolled in the box)

1-1: Carew (32, hooked in from an offside position after Huth got to Delap’s long throw ahead of Gordon)

1-2: Gyan (48, out-muscled Huth to reach Muntari’s through ball, and turned same defender before slotting home)

2-2: Huth (83, bundled home from an offside position after Carew knocked down Pennant’s free-kick with his arm)

3-2: Huth (90, arrived late to sweep home Pennant’s left-wing free-kick at the back post)

Bookings: Muntari (30, foul), Sessegnon (56, foul), Delap (72, foul), Henderson (80, foul)

Referee: Lee Probert (Bristol) - Completely lost control of what was happening in Sunderland’s penalty area and awarded two goals that should have been disallowed 1

Attendance: 26,008

Entertainment: ****

STOKE (4-4-2):

Begovic 6; Wilkinson 5 (Walters 66, 6), Shawcross 5, Huth 7, Higginbotham 6; PENNANT 8, Whitehead 4, Delap 7, Etherington 5; Jones 4, Carew 7. Subs (not used):

Sorensen (gk), Collins, Whelan, Wilson, Pugh, Shotton.


4 Gordon: Allowed himself to be bullied whenever Stoke launched a throw in or free-kick into the box

6 Onuoha: Clearly relished the attacking freedom afforded by his new wing-back role

5 Ferdinand: Positionally secure, but found wanting a number of times in the air

4 Bramble: Should have been the defender dominating Sunderland’s penalty box, but was repeatedly far too weak

6 Mensah: The pick of Sunderland’s back five as he made a series of well-judged tackles and interceptions

6 Bardsley: Effective at both ends of the field and provided the pass that helped set up Richardson’s opener

6 Henderson: More impressive than he has been of late with most of his passes finding their target

8 MUNTARI: Produced a superb debut at the base of midfield and provided an excellent pass for Gyan’s goal

7 Sessegnon: His technical excellence was clear to see as he repeatedly forced Stoke’s defenders onto the back foot

7 Richardson: Maintained his superb recent scoring record with a rasping finish

7 Gyan: Displayed impressive strength to hold off Huth as he scored and led the line effectively throughout


Malbranque (for Henderson, 83) Zenden (for Muntari, 89) (not used): Mignolet (gk), Angeleri, Riveros, Colback, Elmohamady.


JERMAINE Pennant – didn’t do a lot from open play, but his superb setpiece delivery was ultimately the difference between the sides.