Stoke City 0 Sheffield Wednesday 0 – Promotion dream is still on for battling Owls following Potters stalemate
Their promotion dream is still on.
With seven matches left to play, Sheffield Wednesday remain in play-off contention.
Steve Bruce's depleted team extended their unbeaten Championship run to 12 matches after a dogged, spirited performance away to Stoke City.
Yes, the Owls offered little in attack. Yes, the home side dominated for long periods. Yes, the visitors rode their luck at times.
But Wednesday were solid defensively and dug deep to grind out a hard-earned point. You never know, it could a big result come the end of the season.
Despite bossing possession and territory, Stoke, relegated from the Premier League last term, were unable to find a way past an inspired Keiren Westwood. The Republic of Ireland international produced a string of good saves in the second half to keep the Potters at bay.
It is worth stressing that Stoke, now the first team in a decade to play out four consecutive goalless draws since Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in February 2009, are much, much better than their league position. There is an array of attacking talent in their expensively-assembled squad and many observers expected them to challenge in the upper echelons of the division.
After a first half of the season to forget, the Potters are slowly showing signs of improvement under Nathan Jones so credit must go to Wednesday for frustrating them.
There is no getting away from the fact that the Owls lacked attacking fluency. Their build up play was far too slow and predictable.
Their midfield never got going in the first period. Adam Reach was clearly hampered by a knee injury, Sam Hutchinson looked off the pace while George Boyd, brought in as a late replacement for Rolando Aarons, who was withdrawn in the warm-up due to an ongoing ankle problem, worked tirelessly on the left but had little joy going forwards. Peter Etebo and Joe Allen controlled the centre as Stoke were quicker and sharper.
Not only did Wednesday miss Aaron's pace, they also struggled up front without in-form striker Steven Fletcher.
Fernando Forestieri and Gary Hooper, handed surprise starts by Bruce, put in hard-working shifts but neither had a sight at goal. Hooper played over an hour in his first competitive outing in 15 months.
"We are playing players who are not 100 per cent at the moment," said Bruce. "We are playing a bit makeshift at the minute, truth be known.
“It’s not the way I wanted to play Hooper in particular, then we have got (Sam) Winnall and Forestieri has had his problems and with Fletcher not being fit.
"I couldn't fault their resilience but, if we are going to be honest, we gave the ball away too cheaply at times.”
The big talking point in a scrappy first half of few clear-cut chances came just before the half hour mark when Boyd thought he had given the visitors the lead. He latched on to Hooper's well-weighted pass before calmly rounded Potters goalkeeper Jack Butland and firing home into an unguarded net. But Boyd's goal was ruled out after the experienced wide man had been adjudged to have strayed into an offside position.
Bruce bemoaned the decision.
"We think he [Boyd] was onside for the goal," he said. "The linesman took an eternity to make a decision, when you look at it I thought it was supposed to be for the benefit of the attacker.
“That was a big decision and it would have been nice for us to be 1-0 up."
Unsurprisingly, Jones, Bruce’s opposite number, saw things a little differently.
He said: “I think he was offside.
“Maybe that could have changed the complexion of the game but if one of our 12 opportunities had gone in then it would have been a different game there.”
After the break, Westwood yet again underlined what a top goalkeeper he is at this level. He came to Wednesday’s rescue when a sweeping counter-attack saw Tom Ince feed Bojan inside the penalty area to go one-on-one with the 34-year-old, who rushed off his line and superbly spread himself to turn the ball around the post for a corner.
“It was an excellent save,” acknowledged Bruce.
Westwood also pulled off fine saves to keep out Benik Afobe’s powerful header and Ince’s effort.
Bruce said: “Keiren has been excellent since we brought him back into the team. He has given that assurance to everybody and looks a very, very good goalkeeper again.”
Winnall and Liam Palmer had Wednesday’s best chances but they could have lost it late on. Old boy Danny Batth headed wide from point-blank range at the death after a lovely Ince cross.
STILL IN THE RACE
The draw leaves the Owls in 11th position, trailing sixth-placed Derby County by three points.
"We are still in there with a shout and we have got back-to-back home games which will define the season,” conceded Bruce. If they are to make the dream a reality, victories over Bruce’s former club Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest are an absolute must.