After only four minutes, the inevitable ensued and Michael Carrick poked Manchester United into a lead that, for all of Stoke’s bluster, the champions-elect never looked likely to relinquish.
The Potters and manager Tony Pulis had spoken in the build up to the match of taking advantage of any potential fear the visitors had of conceding the title to Manchester City after their defeat to the reigning Premier League champions on Monday night.
However, one look at Pulis’ team selection suggested that, for all the Welshman’s pre-match confidence, even he had no real belief that his side could take anything away from Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.
Indeed, against a side who are leading the league by a mammoth 12 points, did he really think that a midfield of Ryan Shotton, Glenn Whelan, Steven Nzonzi and Charlie Adam, with Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters up front, would provide any sort of sustained threat?
Yes, Pulis’ hands were tied by the injury to Matthew Etherington but on the bench lay the likes of Wilson Palacios, Michael Kightly, Michael Owen, Peter Crouch and Cameron Jerome. Stoke were not expected to get anything from the game so why not go for broke? Why not play both Crouch and Jones, with two of Walters, Jerome and Kightly on both flanks, with two of Nzonzi, Adam and Palacios in the middle?
To provide these suggestions is not to suddenly imply that Stoke must ditch their tried and tested long-ball style and begin to imitate Barcelona. Indeed, with Crouch and Jones up front, the reality is there is only one way for the Potters to play.
However, it would at least have given United’s backline a little more to worry about, with both Jones and Walters proving highly ineffective, while in the wider positions, the less said about Ryan Shotton’s contribution the better.
Tony Pulis often spends much of his time informing the media that Stoke do not quite get the credit they deserve for their style of play yet he continues to persevere with the likes of Shotton for no palpable reason other than a long throw, which is not nearly half as good as those provided by the now departed Rory Delap.
The eventual 2-0 defeat thanks to Robin van Persie’s second-half penalty, coupled with Sunderland’s shock victory over Newcastle, means that the Potters now drop to 16th and are only above Aston Villa courtesy of a better goal difference. Three points still remain between them and 18th-placed Wigan but the Latics, buoyant FA Cup finalists now of course, have two games in hand on the Potters.
The next three games will surely decide everything for Stoke. Clashes away at QPR and Sunderland with a home match against Norwich in between will make or break their season. Should the Potters re-find the spirit of previous seasons, then they will be fine. However, the problem is that at the moment, it looks like not even Tony Pulis knows how to locate that spirit anymore.
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