Stoke City ended a pretty remarkable year for lots of reasons in a bit of frustration and a hell of a fog.
Stoke, with an enviable record of clean sheets, would have backed themselves to see out a win after being gifted a bizarre lead mid-way through the first half courtesy of a Jordan Thompson corner and a mix up between Lewis Grabban and Brice Samba.
Plenty of Nottingham Forest fans would have backed them too considering their struggles for goals and in the league table over the past few months since a spanking from Stoke knocked them out of the play-off places on the final day of last season.
But Forest came out a re-energised side in the second half and Stoke were kept on the back foot, before and after an own goal from James Chester supplied the equaliser. As a freezing fog rolled and thickened, it was battle stations at the wrong end of the pitch.
In the end, it took a superb one-on-one save from Joe Bursik to keep it at 1-1 and Stoke, who would have broken into the top six with three points, are still on the outside looking up.
It’s certain and incredible progress from where they started the year but the manager wants more – and he will look to January to help boost a squad hit by injuries in problematic areas.
Michael O’Neill made two changes to his starting XI, including Joe Allen replacing Jordan Cousins and an enforced change up front with Sam Vokes replacing Steven Fletcher, whose troublesome knee had flared up.
The selection put the spotlight on O’Neill’s injury problem, even with the return of Allen and Sam Clucas and John Obi Mikel, who were named on the bench.
A lack of a senior left-back – and Josh Tymon (groin) has joined Morgan Fox (hamstring) in the treatment room – dictated the shape of the team and in turn that meant it was tricky to accommodate Thibaud Verlinden or Tom Ince.
And Vokes and Jacob Brown were the only senior strikers. Lee Gregory is recovering from a bad groin injury and Tyrese Campbell (knee) is out for the season.
No wonder the links with potential forward targets in January are growing. Interest in Duncan Watmore, whose short-term deal at Middlesbrough is due to end in a fortnight, was reported in the couple of hours before kick-off.
The plan since Campbell’s absence has pretty much been to keep a clean sheet and try to nick one at the other end – and they were given a big helping hand in that regard in the first half.
Forest obliged by not taking gilt-edged chances, like when Nick Powell did just about enough to put off Joe Worrall at the back post rather than Worrall wellying in a breakthrough.
There was some frenetic defending, too, when Vokes shinned a half-clearance and Harry Souttar took one in the guts.
Vokes was straight up the other end to force a good save right in the bottom corner from Samba when he latched onto a cross from Tommy Smith on the swivel.
The resultant corner was bizarre. Vokes made a run across the near post but Thompson’s delivery went over him and Lewis Grabban ducked as if he’d had a call from the keeper a couple of yards behind. Samba can’t have been expecting it, however, considering what happened next, chopping the ball into his own net without any pressure.
It was the second own goal that Stoke have forced in six games, thanks in part to the panic that opponents have when thanks to the reputation of their crosses… but mainly on this occasion thanks to some pretty comical play.
Thompson was claiming it too and was happy to celebrate with teammates. He has been rightly praised for his set piece delivery through 2020 since joining from Blackpool in January but this didn’t even look like a particularly good one until Grabban nodded.
Forest caused some consternation with corners of their own – and they had six in the first half – but by hook or by crook, Stoke managed to get them clear.
The match was still in the balance and Stoke had to keep their focus at the re-start, knowing the importance of the evening’s second goal.
Vokes set up Allen to lash nine months of frustration into a shot that was only stopped by a seat half-way up the Boothen End.
A freezing mist rolled over the pitch like that night that Andy Griffin scored that rocket against Coventry – and Cyrus Christie fancies something similar when he cuts in from the right and unleashes a shot from 25 yards that whistled past the far post.
And Forest did find a leveller when Anthony Knockaert picked up the ball at a half-cleared corner and swung in an excellent cross that Chester dived forward to deal with ahead of Worrall, but only flicking it backwards over Bursik and in.
Forest had all the momentum and Joe Lolley thought he’d put them in front when he met fellow sub Lyle Taylor’s neat cross only to flick it all the way across goal past the far post.
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And Bursik needed to be out to make a wonder one-on-one save from Cafu after a horror back pass from Mikel.
Yet Stoke still had a chance to steal a winner when a cross emerged through the fog from the right for Vokes to head at close range – but his effort went straight to the keeper.
Stoke have another chance to claw their way towards the top on Saturday. Roll on 2021.