Stoke getting left behind

Posted by James Whittaker

Tony Pulis, Michael Owen PA PhotosMichael Owen was introduced as a sub but was unable to make an impact

It was not a good day for Stoke as they lost 2-0 to Manchester United, with the Champions elect barely breaking a sweat as they swept the men in red and white aside with ease.

The result in this game wasn't of huge concern, but the game that preceded it up in the North East was and it went the way of relegation rivals Sunderland as they smashed near-neighbours Newcastle 3-0, taking them above the Potters in the Premier League standings. Indeed, what Stoke fans were looking to take from their own fixture on Sunday were positives, but the only good to come out of the game was the fact that Ryan Shawcross escaped a booking (that would have meant two games out) and the fact the score line didn't hurt the goal difference too much.

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The team selection was mildly positive; Charlie Adam getting a chance in what looked like a middle three (given that no wingers were named) but alas, he found himself behind Kenwyne Jones, chasing the ball between defenders and challenging Nemanja Vidic in the air. You couldn't make it up. When Adam did manage to get possession his touch was poor, but that's to be expected given his lack of game time and the fact he had been chasing shadows. He came into the game more as it wore on, but his influence was marred somewhat by the complete lack of quality around him.

Stoke have so many players uncomfortable on the ball and no-one wanted the responsibility of possession, it was as if the ball was a hand grenade and someone had pulled out the pin before tossing it on the field. That five players started out of position only made things worse and despite Ryan Shotton's woeful performance last week he was once again given the nod over Michael Kightly on the right, some might say to keep Patrice Evra under wraps, I'm not sure that one tackle was worth it.

The wind was blowing an absolute gale and whilst Wilson Palacios cowered in the dugout he watched on in exasperation as the ball got pumped into the gust time and again, held up in no man's land, but almost always landing in favour of the opposition on its re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. When the ball was worked wide, it was invariably "controlled" into touch or straight to the opposition. Though there was one moment when Shotton was released down the right only to slice the ball out behind, burying his face in the turf as the fans looked on thinking there are a few they would bury under there themselves.

There's no belief in the stands, on the pitch and I'm starting to think in the dugout too. The players look tired and slanging matches between them and Tony Pulis during the match suggests recent murmurs of player and manager disconnect may just have some truth to them. Ironic cheers were abound as Michael Owen was thrown into the fray, but you get the impression his introduction was more for him against his old side as opposed to Pulis thinking he could turn the game around. Stuck out on the wing, he'd probably have preferred to hide on the bench.

Stoke now have to be the favourites to join QPR and Reading in the relegation places as despite being ahead of Wigan, the Latics have two games in hand and much like every other side around them, have goals in them. Sunderland scored three on Sunday, away from home no less. Wigan scored three away from home against Reading and Everton recently and as for Villa, well we know who they scored three against last week. It's hard to see where the goals will come from, let alone points, and with everyone around Stoke seemingly picking up form, I really do fear the worst.

Gary Neville was quoted in commentary as saying: "This is Sunday league stuff". Whilst he might have been talking about the wind as van Persie struggled to spot a corner, I'm not sure many would have grounds for complaint if that was his honest summation of Stoke's efforts in recent times, because they look nothing like a side befitting the top flight.

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