Michael O’Neill hinted that he might have a tough choice to make between the experience of James Chester and the youthful exuberance of Nathan Collins when Stoke resume their relegation battle at lowly Luton at the weekend.
Teenager Collins won a surprise call up for the 0-0 draw at Blackburn tonight, his first league start since August, after Chester was rested following a hectic start to his career at Stoke.
Collins stood strong in central defence to help usher in a clean sheet at Ewood Park and his appreciative manager noted: “I thought Nathan did very well. He settled into the game well.
“He got a bit excited in trying to win a few headers at times, which is natural for a young player, which possibly he didn’t have to.
“But overall, coming into a game, and with the significance of the game because of where we are, I thought he handled it well and gave a very good performance.
“James has not played a lot of football (at Aston Villa this season), we knew that when we brought him to the club, and a three-game week can be difficult for him.
“So this was an opportunity to do that. We also felt that Nathan’s height, particularly if they played (Sam) Gallagher off the right-hand side, would give us a bonus there and it proved to be the case.”
Stoke’s only real escape came early on when Jack Butland spilled a shot and the follow-up effort was ruled offside, but the former England keeper backed up his solid back four early in the second half with a significant one-on-one save to thwart the home side.
“It was a very good defensive performance,” O’Neill continued.
“Our work-rate was fantastic. I thought out wide men (Nick Powell and Tom Ince) worked particularly hard, our midfield as well, and obviously the front player has a lot of work to do as well.
“It’s a really good point coming here against a very good team in very good form, but equally there’s aspects of the game where I felt we could have done better.
“I just felt, at times with the ball, we could have done better.
“We had opportunities on the counter-attack where, when we’ve been at our best in the past, we’ve capitalised on that away from home.
“We just didn’t manage to do that. Whether we didn’t find the right pass, hold the ball up at the right time, or make the right decision, but that’s possibly being a little bit critical because what the players gave in terms of effort was enormous.
“Sometimes when you give that much on the defensive side, it takes away from the attacking side.”
Stoke head to Luton on Saturday two places and one point above the bottom three after results again went largely against O’Neill’s men.
Wigan pulled off an impressive 3-0 win at Reading and Barnsley won 1-0 at Hull, but Middlesbrough’s poor trot continued with a home defeat by Leeds to leave them sinking fast.