Aston Villa were hit by an incredible late show as visitors Stoke City earned a shock 2-2 draw. Manager Martin O'Neill's midweek gamble in playing a second-string side in the UEFA Cup made no difference as Villa surrendered a 2-0 lead to the relegation-haunted side.
Villa were cruising to victory, and an eight-point lead over fifth-placed Arsenal, thanks to goals from Stiliyan Petrov and John Carew, as O'Neill's omission of eight players from Thursday's trip to CSKA Moscow looked to have been fully justified. But Stoke, who have so often this season upset teams in the upper reaches of the Premier League, did it again with two goals in the last five minutes from Ryan Shawcross and substitute Glen Whelan.
O'Neill offered to foot the bill for a lavish meal for some 300 fans who likely spent in excess of £1,000 ($1,400, 1,100 euros) each to make the trip to Russia, by way of an apology for omitting eight players from Thursday's UEFA Cup round of 32 exit at the hands of CSKA Moscow. The 2-0 defeat saw them go out 3-1 on aggregate. He remains adamant that it was the correct choice, to protect the club's desire for a seat at the exclusive UEFA Champions League table next season and he will be more than happy to pay up if his decision is ultimately vindicated.
Two weeks ago, Villa had two trophies and a top four finish in their sights, but UEFA Champions League qualification is all that remains now after their FA Cup exit to Everton and the inability of O'Neill's reserves to keep the UEFA Cup flame burning. O'Neill had the full backing of American club owner Randy Lerner over his decision to effectively sacrifice their UEFA Cup campaign and all of the Moscow absentees were back on duty here.
They laid siege to the Stoke goal for long periods in the opening 45 minutes and strikers Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor should both have applied the final touch to crosses fired along the six-yard box by Luke Young and Gareth Barry. Zat Knight, one of the few to see service in Moscow, headed just over the crossbar.
The extent of Stoke's ambition was to frustrate, employing James Beattie as a lone forager in attack and Mamady Sidibe employed in a five-man midfield, but their plan unravelled a minute before the interval. Petrov had already attempted shots from distance with little success when he exchanged passes with James Milner before firing a diagonal shot across goalkeeper and former Villa team-mate Thomas Sorensen for his first Premier League goal of the season.
To add to Stoke's misery, Sorensen failed to appear for the second half, after suffering what appeared to be a neck injury early in the game, and was replaced by Steve Simonsen. He had no chance of preventing Carew from making a spectacular entrance as a substitute for Heskey. The Norway striker had only been on the field three minutes when he instinctively volleyed Petrov's pass, from the edge of the area, beyond the replacement goalkeeper.
But Stoke refused to concede defeat and when Shawcross headed in James Beattie's cross in the 87th minute the alarm bells were ringing. In the second minute of stoppage time, Whelan received a loose ball after Petrov's clearance and Knight failed to close down on the edge of the area, as the Republic of Ireland midfielder stunned Villa Park with a low shot beyond goalkeeper Brad Friedel.