Peter Crouch’s trademark header proved enough to salvage a point for Stoke City in a thoroughly compelling encounter with Leicester City at the bet365 Stadium in the Saturday lunchtime kick-off.
Vicente Iborra was the unlikely figure to break the deadlock after a slow start to proceedings, with the ex-Sevilla man popping up inside the six-yard box from a corner to thump an effort into the net.
This began an end-to-end passage of play to finish the first-half, with the visitors going close to doubling their lead when Shinji Okazaki’s header was brilliantly kept out by Jack Butland in the Stoke goal, but it was the hosts who struck the next blow when Xherdan Shaqiri smartly tucked home.
The second-half continued with the high tempo of the first and it was Leicester who took the lead once again, with Riyad Mahrez wriggling his way into the area and squirming a shot beyond Butland.
Yet the hosts rallied for a second time and, just moments after coming on, Peter Crouch marked his 142nd league appearance from the bench with a typically towering header to set up a frenetic finale.
Both sides pushed in search of a late winner and Stoke nearly found one, but Kasper Schmeichel pulled off a superb diving stop from Crouch in the last action of the day to ensure the spoils were shared.
Script aborted as the bet365 plays host to compelling encounter
Considering the pedigree of some of the fixtures on show this weekend in the Premier League, not many would have been excited by a Saturday lunchtime clash between Stoke City and Leicester City.
Neither side are particularly known for their free-flowing approach on the football field, nor have either side had the ideal start to the 2017-18 campaign, so the prospect of two mid-table teams having a showdown at the bet365 Stadium did little to whet the appetite for the weekend ahead.
A drab opening 25 minutes – within which the most exciting thing to happen was an enforced change of officials – did little to suggest the game would follow anything other than this script.
Yet the match all of a sudden burst into life with Iborra’s opener for the visitors, sparking a frantic ending to the first-half that saw a sensational save from Jack Butland and a sublime Stoke equaliser.
The end-to-end nature of the game was a combination of some poor defending some both sides and some severe pace in their respective attacking outlets, with the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, Demarai Gray and Xherdan Shaqiri all posing a potent threat with their raw acceleration up the field.
Yet the way the match transpired just outlined how both managers have ambitions of the top-half this season – perhaps even going as far as challenging for the European spots – and it led to a compelling game full of clear opportunities which completely subverted any pre-match conceptions.
Demarai Gray and Riyad Mahrez shine again under Claude Puel
It’s been quite the week for Leicester City’s Demarai Gray.
After being awarded just his second Premier League start of the season by new manager Claude Puel last weekend against Everton, a match where the England Under-21 star found the back of the net and influenced heavily, it was announced that Gray had penned a new four-year deal at the King Power.
And after last week’s performance it was little surprise that the youngster was named in Puel’s starting line-up for the trip to Stoke, making back-to-back league starts for the first time since early April.
It seems like Gray is ready to take his opportunity to impress under a new manager, and he was a constant thorn in Stoke’s side on Saturday afternoon with a combination of his pace and tricky runs.
He caused regular problems for Mame Biram Diouf in the host’s defence, twisting and turning him inside out on a number of occasion, and he can count himself unfortunate not to grab an assist when his perfectly-weighted cross for Okazaki was miraculously kept out from close-range by Butland.
Yet Gray’s rise to prominence under Puel has equally brought the best out of Riyad Mahrez, with the Algerian celebrating his 150th appearance for the Foxes with his second league goal of the season.
The duo were unarguably Leicester’s biggest threat all afternoon, working in tandem on the wings to provide some width and offer a constant outlet on the counter-attack, and Mahrez was good value for his second-half strike after a display full of the trickery and confidence from the 2015-16 season.
The fact that Mahrez is beginning to re-find some form on the pitch is only a good sign for Leicester fans and it seems that he is responding to the impressive displays from Gray over on the other flank.
Puel’s decision to persist with a 4-2-3-1 formation, starting both Mahrez and Gray, has worked wonders in his opening few matches and there’s suddenly a lot of promise for the season ahead.
Peter Crouch effort papers over Stoke’s defensive cracks
Was it ever in doubt?
With Stoke in need of a goal after falling behind for the second time, Mark Hughes looked to his bench and turned to the obdurate figure of Peter Crouch to try and provide his threat from the air.
The tactic of lumping long balls forward to the England striker was a far cry from the pattern of play from the preceding 69 minutes but, as proven time and time again in the past, Crouch simply has this way of popping up inside the 18-yard-box and getting his team out of jail with his golden head.
Leicester would have known what was coming from the second Crouch stepped on the pitch but knowing about it and dealing with it are two different things, and the 34-year-old almost inevitably nodded home with 15 minutes to go for his 15th goal as a Premier League substitute.
However, Crouch’s late contribution will only serve to paper over the cracks of another below-par performance from Mark Hughes’ side, who can count themselves lucky to have earnt a point.
Heading into Saturday’s clash the Potters had the second-worst defensive record in the Premier League behind bottom side Crystal Palace, conceding 20 goals in their ten games.
Whilst 16 of these came in the absence of Ryan Shawcross the Stoke captain did little to consolidate his side’s back-three against the Foxes and the likes of Gray and Mahrez caused havoc down the flanks, and Leicester will feel aggrieved that they didn’t leave with all three points.
Stoke were indebted to goalkeeper Butland on a number of occasions, including the aforementioned outstanding stop from Okazaki from just a matter of yards out, but the way in which they were exposed on the counter-attack would have set the alarm bells ringing for the Potters’ coaching staff.
It was their defending from set-pieces that caused most concern though, with their zonal approach to corners leaving a number of Leicester runners free on each occasion, and it was little surprise when Iborra was left all alone inside the penalty area to thump home and give the visitors the lead.
There are a number of talented individuals in the Stoke defence, who have all impressed in their own right at times this season, but it’s time for Hughes to now get them working together to try and stop leaking goals.