All hail the passing of a night to forget

Posted by James Whittaker

Stoke vs Man Utd rain BETTER PA PhotosStoke and Man Utd players were forced to leave the pitch after a hailstorm hit the Britannia Stadium.

It was a game that the club shop would struggle to sell the DVD for in their Christmas sales. Even the bargain bucket would feel hard done by should it find itself associated with such a woeful match -- one that the Potters eventually lost 2-0 to Manchester United.

Picture the scene: a wet and windy night at the Britannia in December, but Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates were nowhere in sight to prove the well-known theory. If they had been there, they wouldn't have had much of a chance to showcase their tiki-taka anyway as, around the 20-minute mark, the referee decided to abandon play for 10 minutes due to a torrential hailstorm.

It was perhaps the only exciting part of a first half that had promised little and delivered even less. The fact that so many fans were still stuck on the roads outside the ground due to "lots of private cars travelling to the match" (who'd have thought?) was an early Christmas blessing.

The traffic management around the Britannia was second only in the farcical stakes to the Stoke defence for the second goal they conceded on the night; seemingly no one took charge on the pitch to organise the shape following an injury to Ryan Shawcross, and Patrice Evra scored. I'm not sure any one individual can be blamed, despite the predictable calls for the head of Mark Hughes, but Jonathan Walters and Wilson Palacios didn't cover themselves in glory. Palacios looked particularly mortified that he had to come back onto the pitch having eyed up a nice warm cup of Bovril on the bench only to have it snatched away from him.

It was a match to forget in a lot of respects but one that Stoke were competitive in for large periods, and right up until the second goal they had threatened to come back into it. That might sound fanciful given the fact they didn't manage to register a shot on target, but chances were created -- though, sadly, they fell to all too often at the feet or head of Walters. Like many of the games that preceded it, while Walters does well to get into the right positions, his complete inability to take his chances (often the few clear-cut ones that are created) comes back to bite the team.

The main problem on the night though, was that the side desperately missed Steven N'Zonzi. Hughes opted to give him a night off and selected Glenn Whelan and Palacios, both of whom are every inch the archetypal defensive midfielder. Much of Stoke's recent successes as an attacking force have come as a result of N'Zonzi being told to join in with attacks further up the field to support the front men. That movement just wasn't there against Manchester United, and the chasm between midfield and attack got wider and wider allowing the opposition midfield to dominate the space in between. A carrier of the ball in that position is crucial to the way Hughes wants the side to play and, with N'Zonzi out, it showed that the options available to the manager for that role are limited if not nonexistent.

The January transfer window can't come soon enough and, based on what Hughes now knows of the side he has inherited, I'm somewhat fearful of the level of change that is required. New players are needed in all areas of the pitch, and that's a big ask for a club and manager striving for value in a window notoriously regarded as providing exactly the opposite. The most immediate concern though will be the side chosen to start against Saturday's opponents: Aston Villa. The verdict on Shawcross is unknown but what is certain is that loanee Stephen Ireland is unavailable for selection against his parent club.

That leaves the very real prospect of Stoke lining up without either of their recognised centre-halves, and I'm struggling to remember a game since their union where that has happened. In terms of the approach up top, I'd like to see Marko Arnautovic come in for Ireland to keep that movement and link up play in and around Crouch. Sadly, I fear that Charlie Adam will get the nod to replace the missing Irishman, despite showing time and again he's in no way suited to that No. 10 role.

Three points is a big ask, but not an impossible one; all the fans can do in the meantime is hope they get an early Christmas present in the shape of a fit Shawcross. His absence and the associated moving around of players, and everything that is lost as a consequence, would prove a huge blow to a side desperate to finish the year on a high.


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