Stoke fail to reach potential as nerves paralyse passing
Pulis disappointed after his side show too much respect to their slicker, wealthier opponents
Sunday 15 May 2011
Tony Pulis had compared this match to 1988 when Wimbledon upset Liverpool. It was an apt choice, and not just because the perceived disparity between the clubs' wealth and playing pedigree. What is often forgotten amid all the talk of the "Crazy Gang" and Vinnie Jones is that Wimbledon were a good side, strong enough to come sixth that season.
Stoke City are a decent team too. Amid the snide talk about "direct football" and Rory Delap's long throws few seemed to have noticed they began this match eighth in the Premier League, only four places behind Manchester City. The 19-point disparity is perhaps a better indication of their differing resources but when they met in the League this season it was a draw.
All of which suggested that City could not afford to be complacent, and Stoke had reason to believe. In the event City did give their opponents due respect, but for too long Stoke seemed in awe of the occasion and the opposition.
Unlike most professional football clubs Stoke City are older than the FA Cup; they are also one of the dozen founder members of the Football League. It has been a long wait to play in the FA Cup final, 139 years, but one would never have imagined it from their tentative display, particularly in the first half.
The first debutant finalists since Millwall in 2004, and 55th overall, Stoke stood off their opponents. In the semi-final they had been all over Bolton but here they allowed City to dominate possession, pulling back to defend the 18-yard line. This resulted in bouts of pinball in the penalty area and, eventually, one of the loose balls fell to a boot owned by a City player, the silvery blue one of Yaya Touré. He blasted home to put a gloss finish on what must have been a difficult time for the Touré family given brother Kolo's suspension for a positive drug test.
In the build-up Pulis had said "every one of our players has to play to their maximum and then we have to hope we get the run of the ball." In the event, though there was some doughty defending and sharp goalkeeping, hardly any played to potential. When Stoke did get the ball they could not hang on to it, nerves paralysing their passing. Half of the outfield players misplaced more than 50 per cent of their passes including one of their best technical players, Matt Etherington, who lasted 61 minutes but never looked fit. On the other flank Jermaine Pennant was the one Stoke outfielder to shine, troubling Aleksandar Kolarov when he ran at him. There was, however, too little support with the midfield duo of Glenn Whelan and Rory Delap outnumbered and outplayed by City's triumvirate of Touré, Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong.
Stoke struggled to cope with the slick interchanges, both of position and possession, of David Silva, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez. That there was never more than one goal in it gave Stoke hope but, aside from Kenwyne Jones' chance on the hour, Stoke never threatened. Even the set-pieces were disappointing, Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany standingup well tothe physical challenge.
"Over the past six or seven weeks we've been excellent, the greatest disappointment is that we have not reached that level, they are disappointed with themselves," said Pulis. "We've had a great season, the big picture is very, very good, we've made so much progress over the last four years, it's just a desperately disappointing day."
Stoke's disappointment should not, though obscure a magnificent campaign. This is their 54th season in the top flight, but only 15 times have they previously finished in the top 10, and never higher than fourth. If they retain their current position it will be their best finish since fifth in 1974-75 under Tony Waddington, when Peter Shilton kept goal behind an intimidating back four marshalled by Denis Smith, and a midfield that incorporated the sublime skills of Alan Hudson.
There is no one like Hudson in this team, but they are not as functional as their reputation. When Etherington is fit he and Pennant carry the ball deep into opponents' halves while Jon Walters, though not as clever as the injured Ricardo Fuller, has some subtle touches.
Pulis will now seek to build on the exposure and credibility reaching the final has won Stoke and add to his squad in the summer. Injuries to Fuller, Danny Higginbotham, Etherington and Robert Huth exposed a lack of depth. The new challenge is Europe, a frontier the club has not crossed in three decades. This presents a tricky choice for Pulis. The Europa League is relatively unglamorous and financially unrewarding, wheras retaining their Premier League status is fundamental to Stoke's ambitions. The temptation will be to play a weakened side, as so many do, and concentrate on the domestic fixtures, but what is the point of qualifying for Europe if a team does not have a crack at it?
Pulis took the FA Cup seriously, of the XI that played Cardiff in the opening third round tie seven of the nine who were fit played yesterday. He was rewarded with a campaign which had moments of joy and glory that will be remembered in the six towns for many years.
What they said... 'This is the start. We'll get bigger every year'
'The dream is real. When we started the season, I said to the players it would be fantastic to win something. It is amazing we've won this to go with a Champions' League place'
Yaya Toure, matchwinner
'I'm happy for the supporters. We did a small piece of history of Manchester City. We start now'
Roberto Mancini, City manager
'This is just the start. We'll get bigger every year'
Micah Richards, City defender
'All my season was shit, can I say that? I've played not very well, but today I played more for the team'
Mario Balotelli, City striker
'It's so disappointing. The better team won'
Thomas Sorensen, Stoke goalkeeper
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