IT'S not the despair but the hope which makes supporting Liverpool such an agony in the Brendan Rodgers era. Though defeat in the Potteries is pretty standard fare – the side have never won here in the Premier League era – the season is turning into an uncomfortably giddy rollercoaster ride.
A heavy defeat at home against Aston Villa, followed by the best yet for Rodgers at Fulham and now this: a pummelling at the hands of a Stoke side for whom Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters led a vulnerable central defence on a merry dance. For Stoke, there is a happy consistency of nine games unbeaten in the league, 16 at the Britannia, with their first three-goal haul in the league for 13 months to boot.
In the beginning, it seemed like Luis Suarez would shape the night. The cacophony of boos for him had been ringing out across the stadium even before the contribution which had them standing up in union to show they "hated" him by the half-hour mark. Their feelings for the man have no doubt been shaped by Tony Pulis, calling him a diver, though the problem for managers who make with those kind of pronouncements is that they give him that extra encouragement.
It took Suarez only 35 seconds to demonstrate that his football speaks louder than words, as he wriggled away into the right-hand side of the box and out of the grasp of Ryan Shawcross, whose clutches at his shirt were the closest he could get.
The way Suarez then fell forward on to to the turf looked like simulation – he was being pulled by Shawcross, not pushed – but there really could be no complaints. It was a clear penalty, which Steven Gerrard converted.
But Stoke never looked back from that point and some classic football of their type asked serious questions about Liverpool's basic preparations. Daniel Agger, for whom this was a poor night, had dropped so deep when Shawcross launched a punt from the deep after five minutes that it sailed over his head and allowed Jones, lurking behind him, to head a ball into the area. It fell at the feet of Walters who had time to shape and shoot after Martin Skrtel slipped.
The second goal – Jones getting comfortably in ahead of Agger to head Glenn Whelan's corner past Pepe Reina and beyond the despairing effort of Glen Johnson – was as poor as it was predictable from a Liverpool perspective. Aside from Suarez and fleetingly Stew-art Downing, Rodgers' players simply lacked the strength to match the way that Stoke bullied and pressed them. Starting the game with Suso, who was withdrawn for Raheem Sterling at halftime, looked as questionable a decision as resting Joe Allen, the kind of player this game needed.
Suarez still looked capable of finding a way through. But there was no way back after Liverpool succumbed to another aerial assault when Jones flicked on Andy Wilkinson's long throw into the path of Walters, the Everton fan whose sublime chest and volley was technically superb.
Rodgers felt his side should have done much better with all three goals they conceded and as a result of their defensive failings, said they did not deserve to get anything out of the game.
"It was a great start for us, when you come away from home it's great to go a goal up, but we just gave away poor goals tonight," he said. "I think all three goals were actually quite straightforward to defend.
"Ultimately when you come to places like here, which is a difficult place to come, you've got to defend better or else you get nothing, and we probably deserve nothing because of that."
Rodgers also praised Stoke and the work being done by Pulis. "I've always said they probably don't quite get the credit they deserve. Tony's done a brilliant job here, keeping them in this division and keeping them progressing," he added.
The mood around Rodgers has been generally positive but Liverpool are not supposed to lose to West Bromwich Albion, Villa and Stoke in a season. Given the nature of this season, the weekend visit to QPR could prompt more top-four talk or something far more serious for the manager.