Stoke City may have started the season celebrating the start of their tenth successive campaign in the top flight of English football but defeat against Everton now leaves the club facing the increasingly likely prospect of relegation.
The Potters are short of quality, form and confidence whilst they are quickly running out of time to save themselves with a miraculous turn of fortune and form required in the closing months of the season if they are to pull off a ‘great escape’ of their own.
The contest against Everton was the latest in a long line of ‘must win’ games in which Stoke have, quite simply, failed to win.
Paul Lambert has now won just one of his eight matches in charge since being appointed as Mark Hughes successor despite being handed a favourable run of fixtures that included games against Huddersfield Town, Brighton, Southampton, Bournemouth, Watford, Leicester City and Everton.
Results are unlikely to improve in the near future, with Stoke facing Arsenal and Tottenham in their next two games.
Lambert has certainly not been helped by the catastrophic decisive errors that his players have been making on the pitch.
Against Everton, Charlie Adam was sent off in the first half for a rash, reckless and needless sliding challenge on Wayne Rooney with Stoke having been the better team in the opening stages of the contest.
Adam has already been the pantomime villain this season, missing a last-minute penalty against Brighton that would have guaranteed victory, whilst Jack Butland, quite literally, threw the three points away against Leicester when he fumbled a cross into his own goal.
To say that Stoke have not helped themselves would be an understatement – in reality, they have shot themselves in both feet multiple times, repeatably.
You could argue that relegation will not come as a major surprise. A ten-year stint in the Premier League is a significant achievement for a club of Stoke’s stature and size whilst the fans have certainly had plenty to celebrate, including an FA Cup Final appearance and Europe League tour.
Perhaps the club’s shelf life has simply expired and it is naturally Stoke’s turn to drop into the second tier as part of English football’s Lion King-esque ‘Circle of Life’.
However, the reality is that Stoke’s current predicament is entirely of their own making and there are plenty of villains to choose from.
Mark Hughes will rightly receive the brunt of the blame.
The Welshman led The Potters to three consecutive top-ten finished for the first time in over a century, but the final eighteen months of his reign were characterised by bizarre tactics and a deterioration of results.
This was exemplified by Hughes’ insistence on playing a 3-4-3 formation this season despite not having the personnel that suited the system, with Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, forced to operate as a wing back.
However, the club hierarchy must also take a large portion of the blame.
Despite the majority of Stoke supporters recognising that the team were spiralling towards the relegation zone, chairman Peter Coates appeared oblivious to any danger.
In December, he told the Staffordshire Sentinel that he “did not understand what all of the fuss was about”, demonstrating either an outstanding level of complacency or that the club hierarchy were completely out of touch with reality.
Furthermore, Coates was extremely slow to dismiss Hughes despite deteriorating results. Prior to Christmas, he suggested that the manager’s future would be determined by games against Burnley and West Ham.
Stoke lost both contests, yet it took a further month and an embarrassing defeat in the FA Cup against fourth-tier Coventry City before the Welshman eventually received his P45.
Coates’ loyalty to his manager was admirable but the consensus is that he acted far too late.
Stoke’s attempts to appoint a new manager were equally as indecisive and chaotic, with the club hierarchy publicly stumbling from one rebuttal to another.
Gary Rowett and Martin O’Neill both turned the job down whilst Quique Sánchez Flores said yes initially, only to conduct a dramatic U-turn 24 hours later by deciding to remain with Espanyol.
The eventual solution was to appoint Paul Lambert, who had reportedly been turned down for the Hull City job earlier in the season.
It may seem harsh to criticise Lambert, but the Scotsman has simply proven that he is not a Premier League manager. True, he did walk into a crisis zone, but it is noticeable that he has failed to stimulate an upturn in results.
Defeat against Arsenal at the weekend would mean that Lambert will have picked up fewer points than his predecessor against the same teams this season whilst failure to beat Tottenham could leave the Scotsman with just one win from his ten games in charge.
Underpinning Stoke’s problems on the pitch has been, what can only be described as, a shambolic transfer policy off it.
This is exemplified by Saido Berahino, who was signed for £12 million and has failed to score in over a year, Kevin Wimmer, signed for £18 million and now training with the reserves, and club record-signing Giannelli Imbula, who is in exile in France on loan with Toulouse.
That is almost £50 million worth of talent that has been poorly invested in the previous two years.
The future is bleak for the Potters and although the fat lady has not sang yet, she is currently waiting behind the curtain preparing to perform.
There is a slight glimmer of hope, but that could be quickly extinguished if Stoke fall to defeats against Arsenal and Tottenham in their next two games and results go against them.
There will be plenty of time for reflection, but Stoke supporters know that this is a relegation entirely of the club’s own making.