Hughes on the spot after latest Stoke collapse
Published 19/09/2016 | 02:30
Mark Hughes stood in silence, hands on hips, sucking and grimacing like a man struggling to digest a particularly large breakfast. On the other side of the pitch, Stoke City's travelling fans were also standing, also silent.
C Palace 4 Stoke City1
Between them stood Stoke's silent players, wearing painfully neutral expressions. The score was 4-0 to Crystal Palace and, really, there was very little left to be said.
Palace supporters might argue that they were the real story here: a handsome victory that nudged them into the top half of the table, two consecutive wins for the first time since Christmas.
But as brutal as it sounds, this was nothing special from them. They simply played with the pinned-on bravado of a boxer who knows that however many punches he throws, he is never going to receive one.
This was a fourth consecutive league defeat for Stoke, and even at this early stage of the season they look so fundamentally broken that Hughes's position is vulnerable.
It was almost enough to make you nostalgic for the Stoke of old: a salty band of brothers that, you felt, would rather elbow their own mothers than cede a second ball.
And yet the current side's biggest problem is not a lack of brawn, but an absence of heart.
There was precious little ticker on show as Palace were eased into an early lead. Andros Townsend's free-kick was allowed to fly unimpeded to the back post, where James Tomkins got the decisive touch.
Just 134 seconds later, Scott Dann was allowed to run all the way from the edge of the penalty area to head in Jason Puncheon's corner.
"Those two early goals played into Crystal Palace's hands," Hughes admitted afterwards, with sparkling perspicacity.
Though Stoke avoided subsiding completely, and even managed the odd attack, ultimately they failed to convince anyone they were capable of a comeback, least of all themselves.
Bafflingly, Hughes used just one of his three substitutions and towards the end, flagging and floundering, they were deservedly hit by another one-two combination.
Another Palace free-kick was only partially cleared, and James McArthur gathered the ball at the corner of the penalty area. With one flick of his hips he sent two Stoke defenders for a pie; with a single swing of his right boot he curled a shot that deflected off Cameron and in. The fourth goal from Townsend, a low finish to polish off a swift counter-attack, was just reward for a bright performance.
"We need to get back to basics. Do the fundamentals well. We've got a good dressing room, good talent. But they need to show it," said Hughes.
Eventually Stoke's hammer-headed persistence was rewarded, Marko Arnautovic pouncing on a loose ball and slamming it in from 25 yards.
There were no celebrations on the pitch and precious few off it, either. On the touchline, Hughes was still standing. But for how much longer?
(© The Daily Telegraph, London)