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Mar 24, 2014

Stoke's heroes take out the Villans

Stoke fans have enjoyed watching some great performances of late, and spirits were high in the stands at Villa Park for another one. Among the traveling contingent were some fans dressed as Batman and Superman, but the real heroes were on the pitch as they slayed the Villans 4-1.

It was a slow start painfully reminiscent of so many before it, but the comeback that ensued has also become a feature of the Potters’ play in recent weeks. Much like in the West Ham game, Stoke went behind with barely five minutes played and, much like that match, having done so exhibited the kind of determination, character and self-belief to not only get themselves back into the game but also to put it beyond all doubt.

Having seen Stephen Ireland fare so well last week, fans could be forgiven for expecting his absence to play a big part on the day, but it was a case of "Stephen who?" as the Potters put Villa to bed with an assured swagger not seen for some time. Wilson Palacios was the man who came in, a move I feared would backfire given his lack of fitness and pace. Early signs appeared to back up my prematch nerves as he was ruthlessly outpaced, but the Honduran grew into the game and provided an excellent defensive linchpin in front of the back four. He was always eager to get on the ball, to collect it from the defenders to start a move off, on the ground, from deep. His linkup play with his midfield colleagues was almost seamless, and Stephen N’Zonzi in particular was often in close attendance despite his attacking brief.

The fact that Palacios was popping up all over the pitch is testament to his work rate and the smile on his face to his new lease of life under Mark Hughes. The manager has said since preseason that he feels Palacios can be more of an attacking force, and the player's performance will do little other than strengthen those claims.

The attacking shape of the team as a whole was again brilliant, the pace and movement from Marko Arnautovic and Peter Odemwingie on the wings the catalyst once more. Arnautovic appears to be winning fans throughout the footballing world, with Match of the Day lauding his impact with yet another showreel and their BBC colleagues comparing him to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That’s perhaps a little ambitious, but Arnautovic is fast becoming a crowd favourite -- the Stoke crowd that is; I’m not sure those still in the stands for City’s fourth quite appreciated his celebrations in front of them.

Much of the stands in question had long since been deserted by that point, to the mocking chants from the traveling support; such was the inevitability of the result and performance from the away side. Having seen their players overthrow Chelsea the week before, fans will have been scratching their heads at how little old Stoke could turn in such a devastating attacking performance as their own players were left chasing the shadows of the men in red and white for much of the afternoon and resorting to dives and niggly fouls.

This nice run of form has been slowly building over the last seven or eight games, but Hughes’ philosophy has really shone through in the last two games. You get the impression he was as happy as the fans to put on such a show in front of the cameras, and based on the reports afterward, there are a few in the media who are having to change their tune when it comes to the Potters, through gritted teeth of course.

For me, the fact that Hughes’ ways have come through so strongly in the last two games is largely down to the absence of Jon Walters and even Charlie Adam. I’ve long since argued that neither is ideal for the shape and style that Hughes wants to use, and seven goals in two games would suggest that the attacking shape of the side has been enhanced in their absence. The synergy of the attacking unit as a whole has improved tenfold, and every break has an able component to it. There are no weak links, no lack of pace or poor decision-making to stop them in their tracks. It’s the way the team has to set up for the remainder of the campaign, and it will only get better both this term and next once more players in the manager’s image are secured.

Next week sees Stoke back at the Britannia to face Hull City. It was against them that Stoke ensured safety in 2009. Given that a win would see the club reach 40 points this time around, it seems almost poetic it is they who the side faces next.