In what was billed as Stoke City’s most important match of the season, the abuse that rained down on Tony Pulis and his players spoke volumes for the way the Potters’ season has degenerated in recent weeks.
In truth, despite two periods of sustained pressure from the home side, one early in the first half and the other late in the second, Aston Villa were worthy winners at the Britannia and really need not have required Matt Lowton’s wonder-strike to take the lead with three minutes left to play.
Despite their bluster and effort, the Potters were poor throughout and second best to the visitors in almost every department. When you consider that this was effectively Pulis’ first choice starting XI against a young Aston Villa side that has looked decidedly vulnerable against Stoke’s supposed forte of high balls and set-pieces this season, the alarming nature of the home side’s performance becomes ever more stark.
Trips to the Britannia used to scare the living daylights out of young sides like Aston Villa. The results often seemed to be decided in the tunnel pre-match or even in the stands as the raucous home support summed up everything Stoke City under Tony Pulis stood for.
No longer. The defeat to Villa encapsulated almost everything that has gone wrong at the club this season. The crowd, for instance, were no longer loud and buoyant; they were resentful, grumbling and critical of their side, even with the score at 1-1 and Stoke playing as well as they had done all game.
The defence, for so long united and water-tight, described by Andre Villas-Boas back in December as “the best in Europe, let alone the Premier League” looked ponderous and ragged, with Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross particularly culpable as they found themselves bullied by Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Stoke’s midfield and attack have never exactly been sources of inspiration, but the least opposition sides expected was a battle and a thoroughly uncomfortable 90 minutes. However, bar a few nervy moments, have Nathan Baker and Ron Vlaar – so often vilified at the heart of Aston Villa’s backline – had a more comfortable afternoon this season?
To his credit, Pulis did attempt to change things, axing the chronically out-of-form Peter Crouch and bringing in Kenwyne Jones, who was key to the Potters’ good form earlier on in the season. However, the former Southampton man summed up his side’s performance: slow, cumbersome, without a surety of touch and, frankly, toothless.
Toothless is certainly not a word we have come to expect from Stoke and that is something that certainly needs to change in the coming weeks with the Potters now firmly in a relegation battle.
Pulis has spoken of his belief that six more points will guarantee the club survival, but this is a side that have only taken five points in 12 league matches played since the turn of the year and, with a clash at home to champions-elect Manchester United next, that appears unlikely to change for at least another week.
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