Stoke relegated from Premier League after Van Aanholt strikes for Palace
Exactly a decade ago on Friday Stoke City won promotion to the Premier League with a tense draw against Leicester City. Their 10-season spell in the top flight is now over, after defeat at home to Crystal Palace confirmed their relegation.
At full-time they remained only three points from the last safe spot with one game to play but Swansea face Southampton on Tuesday and so one of those teams’ tally will increase beyond what is available to Paul Lambert’s side.
“I can’t put my thoughts into words so soon after the game,” said Lambert. “Emotions are up and down after a tough afternoon. I feel for everybody connected with the club.”
Xherdan Shaqiri had given Stoke both the lead and a bit of hope but second-half goals from James McArthur and Patrick van Aanholt, combined with an anaemic home display in which Lambert’s players looked absolutely terrified of their fate, sent them down.
This has, of course, been coming. The club left it too long to dismiss Mark Hughes, under whom the club had stagnated, waiting until January to make the change. It might have looked like deflecting blame, particularly as Stoke have won only one of Lambert’s 14 games in charge, but it is tricky to disagree with his assessment of their fate. “When you don’t start right, and don’t get the grip of it, then you end up in trouble,” he said.
The atmosphere was tense from the start. The home fans did their best to intimidate, booing every slight delay of a Palace throw-in as if the taker had spat on the statue of Stanley Matthews that stands outside the ground.
But that merely masked their nerves. It was a bitty game that neither team looked capable of getting hold of. Lambert spent most of his time doing shuttle runs along the edge of the technical area, jawing in the ear of the fourth official, his face turning a curious shade of puce – or, put another way, looking every inch the nervous manager.
He was briefly calmed just before half-time. Shaqiri was fouled about 25 yards out, hitched his shorts up his vast thighs and whipped the free-kick into the goalkeeper’s top-left corner. It flicked off Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who had committed the foul, in the wall on the way in but nobody cared: Shaqiri skipped into Lambert’s arms and there was hope in the Potteries.
Yet the problem with a struggling team going ahead is it can exacerbate nerves rather than cool them. That has been a theme of Stoke’s season. “It’s people being anxious, worried about what might happen when we’ve got the lead,” Lambert said.
That anxiety manifested itself in Stoke’s defensive line dropping virtually on to Jack Butland’s toes, inviting Palace on. Stoke looked like a team trying to hold on for 45 minutes and, while Lambert has tightened their defence since arriving in January, it seemed a risky approach.
So it turned out, although Palace’s equaliser came after one of Stoke’s few attacks. Wilfried Zaha led a counter and fed Loftus‑Cheek, who slipped in McArthur. Shoulders slumped around the stadium when he bobbled a shot home.
The decisive moment came with four minutes left. Zaha played what was actually a terrible pass looking for Van Aanholt, which Ryan Shawcross looked to intercept but poked straight into the Dutch full-back’s path, and he slotted the ball beneath Butland. It was cruel, perhaps, that the final error came from the man who has been with Stoke since they came up to the top flight.
The result also confirmed that Palace are safe. Roy Hodgson has done an extraordinary job since taking over a team that had not managed a goal or a point in their first four games, (and went three more in kind under him) but he tried to direct praise towards his backroom staff. “I suppose every orchestra has to have a band leader,” he eventually said, when pressed for a little less modesty. “I’m really proud of our team’s performance, not just today but over the whole season.”
In some ways it might be the kindest thing that it is over now for Stoke. Even with a victory they might still have gone down this weekend, so at least this curtailed their pain. “It’s a chance for Stoke to rebuild,” said Lambert.