Ultimately money talked, just as in theory it should, writes Matt Maher.
A Stoke City team which cost tens of millions played a Walsall side which cost not very much at all and eventually the Premier League outfit won through. But that was only after they had been given a severe second-half examination by their League One visitors.
All those zeroes on the end of the Stoke players’ transfer fees and contracts counted for little when they were rocking as Walsall pushed for the goal which would have taken the tie into extra-time.
The visitors had been brought back into the game by an Ashley Hemmings strike which came from a move the like of which the high-paid hosts didn’t manage all night.
When £8m striker Kenwyne Jones slotted home his and Stoke’s third goal seven minutes from time to end any hope of completing the fightback, the relief among the majority of the 11,667 crowd at the Britannia Stadium was palpable.
Pity then, really, that the Saddlers had gifted Jones and the hosts a two-goal advantage.
The otherwise solid Sam Mantom presented his opener on a plate with a sloppy back-pass. With competition for places in the Saddlers midfield fierce, it was an untimely error – particularly when central midfield partner Nicky Featherstone was arguably man-of-the-match.
When Jones then reacted quicker than the visiting defence to fire home the second from Jermaine Pennant’s 30th-minute corner, the outlook was bleak.
But against a strong Stoke line-up, the Saddlers rallied and the positives were many. Andy Taylor showed no rustiness on his return from injury while Hemmings took his goal superbly.
Aside from Featherstone, the real standout was Romaine Sawyers.
Handed another start by a recurrence of Milan Lalkovic’s hamstring problem, Sawyers once again impressed with his touch, technique and all-round vision. The former Albion man definitely has something and a permanent place in the starting XI needs to be found.
The only criticism of Walsall, aside from the first-half gifts, was the lack of chances – something of a recurring theme in recent games. For all their excellent football, Stoke keeper Thomas Sorensen was not called into enough serious action.
The former Villa custodian might have tasted early action when a Sawyers shot was blocked by Ryan Shawcross.
Walsall seemed to have more desire in the early exchanges, though chances were at a premium for both sides until Mantom invited Jones to open the scoring in the 21st minute. The midfielder’s back-pass into a dangerous area fell between James Chambers and Paul Downing and Jones nipped in, took the ball and fired it past Richard O’Donnell in the Saddlers goal.
Nine minutes later it was two. Jones and Walsall skipper Andy Butler jumped in unison for Pennant’s corner, the ball dropped between them and the striker was quicker on the draw to smash it home.
O’Donnell brilliantly denied Charlie Adam as Stoke began the second half in ominous fashion but then came the visitors’ moment of brilliance. It began with a superb Featherstone pass; Mantom, racing into the area, squared the ball for Hemmings who couldn’t miss.
Suddenly Stoke were in trouble. Huth almost gifted an equaliser to Craig Westcarr with an awful back-pass, while Jones blocked a goalbound Featherstone effort.
The best chance fell to Chambers eight yards out but his shot sailed over. With seven minutes to go, Pennant put Jones clear and he sealed it for the, by then, nervous hosts.
Stoke (4-5-1): Sorensen; Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth, Muniesa (Wilson 46); Pennant, Whelan, Palacios, Adam (Nzonzi 74), Shea (Assaidi 46); Jones. Subs not used: Kightly, Shotton, Jerome, Butland (gk).
Walsall (4-4-2): O’Donnell 6; Chambers 7, Downing 7, Butler 7, Taylor 7; Baxendale 7 (McQuilkin 81), Featherstone 8 (Morris 87), Mantom 6, Hemmings 7; Sawyers 8, Westcarr 6 (Hewitt 81). Subs not used: Purkiss, Holden, Benning, Roberts (gk).
Referee: Michael Naylor (Sheffield).