By Tom Foster
STOKE CITY moved a point closer to safety after securing a hard-fought goalless draw with Champions League chasing Aston Villa at a bitterly cold Britannia Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
In a game which yielded chances few and far between, it was the Potters who looked the more likely to secure the win as the game wore on, with both substitute Ricardo Fuller and German international Robert Huth going agonisingly close during the final few minutes.
Villa's best chance fell to Stewart Downing at the start of the first half, but he saw his strike cannon off John Carew and fly into the side-netting.
Ahead of the clash, Potters boss Tony Pulis named two changes from the midweek draw at Burnley with Danny Higginbotham returning to the heart of the defence after a three week lay-off in place of Andy Wilkinson and Glenn Whelan passing a late fitness test to replace his international team-mate Liam Lawrence.
The visitors named an unchanged starting line-up from their FA Cup victory over Reading last weekend, with Martin O'Neill opting against handing a start to top goalscorer Gabriel Agbonlahor; preferring to start both John Carew and Emile Heskey.
After a relatively cagey opening, the hosts created the first opportunity of the game when Whelan blazed over the bar from just outside the area on six minutes after Villa had cleared a Rory Delap throw-in.
Carlos Cuellar then became the first player to go into the book on 11 minutes as he received a yellow card from referee Kevin Friend for a late challenge on Matthew Etherington. From the resulting free-kick, Mamady Sidibe showed great agility but his acrobatic effort went narrowly over the bar.
Whilst it was the Potters who were marginally having the better of the early proceedings it was infact the visitors who came close to breaking the deadlock on 16 minutes as defender James Collins headed a Stewart Downing corner just wide.
The hosts responded with a chance of their own as Etherington drilled wide from the edge of the area after 20 minutes, before Richard Dunne was the next player to be cautioned for hauling down Tuncay and James Milner was also in the referees notebook shortly after for tripping Delap.
Stiliyan Petrov was the first player to force a save on 26 minutes as the Villa captain's ambitious long range drive was parried away to safety by Thomas Sorensen; before both Milner and Warnock blazed over in quick succession as Villa began to exert some pressure on the City defence without really creating any clear cut opportunities.
Etherington then went on a driving run before unleashing a powerful drive which went just wide of Friedel's left hand post, whilst at the other end Petrov volleyed wide after good hold up play by John Carew in the last real action of a relatively uneventful first half.
O'Neill's side made a lively start to the second half and were nearly rewarded with a goal just two minutes in as Downing saw his effort narrowly miss the target after taking a deflection off the unaware Norwegian international Carew.
The Villans were beginning to dominate proceedings and Pulis responded by making a double substitution. The forward line was completely changed as Tuncay and Sidibe made way for Ricardo Fuller and Dave Kitson just seven minutes into the second half.
Jamaican international Fuller almost made an immediate impact as he set-off on a trademark run, beating both Dunne and Collins, however, after finding a clear sight at goal he agonizingly scuffed his effort straight at the thankful Friedel.
The USA star was again called into action moments later to deal with an ambitious, yet powerful, attempt from defender Robert Huth. There was plenty of effort and endeavour in evidence from both sides but both defences were standing firm in a highly-charged atmosphere at the Britannia Stadium.
Friedel was certainly the busier of the two goalkeepers and he was on hand to crucially palm away a Fuller cross that heading towards the illustrious Whelan in the six-yard area. Former West Ham man Collins then rescued the away side with a terrific piece of defending on 72 minutes to thwart Fuller
England World Cup hopeful Gabriel Agbonlahor was then introduced at the expense of Carew with fourteen minutes remaining as the visitors pushed for a late winner. His arrival failed to spark any hope of a visitors goal though as City continued to look the side more likely to seal maximum points.
Warnock bravely blocked Higginbotham's close range strike after Etherington's ball evaded a packed out penalty area, whilst the defender was at the thick of the action again just moments later as he blazed over after the Villans had failed to deal with a Delap long throw-in.
Milner then went close with a superb free-kick, whilst Huth had the games best opportunity right at the death after rising highest to meet Etherington's sublime corner; however he guided the ball inches over the bar from 6-yards.