Marko Arnautovic struck twice in a 2-1 win for Stoke as they piled the misery on Aston Villa.
Villa boss Remi Garde publicly questioned the commitment of some of his players in light of the performance against Liverpool last time out, with the 6-0 defeat the club’s worst home loss in 81 years.
Perhaps stung by those words Garde’s team, with just one change – Alan Hutton in for Micah Richards – looked much better especially during the first half at the Britannia Stadium.
However their soft underbelly returned at the start of the second half and it cost them as Arnautovic hit two goals, the first from the penalty spot, putting Stoke comfortably in front with 56 minutes on the clock.
It would have been easy for Villa to crumble, and if a Philipp Wollscheid header just after the hour had gone in they might have, but they dug in and showed some rare fight and pulled a goal back through Leandro Bacuna with 11 minutes remaining.
An equaliser never looked likely though and the defeat, Villa’s 10th away from home in the league this season, leaves them nine points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table.
The visitors would have made a terrible start had Mark Bunn not displayed excellent early reflexes to claw out an Ibrahim Afellay cross which had taken an awkward deflection off Jores Okore.
Shortly afterwards Bunn was relieved to see Xherdan Shaqiri’s curling, left-foot free-kick from the right side of the penalty area, about 30 yards from goal, drop a foot wide of the near post.
6 – Marko Arnautovic has now scored six Premier League goals at the Britannia this season; twice as many as any other Stoke player. Rule.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 27, 2016
The 13th minute would have probably been unlucky for Villa had Joleon Lescott not cut out Arnautovic’s dangerous, low cross, with Jonathan Walters lurking with intent behind him.
Villa were defending well, marshalled by Lescott, and largely keeping Stoke at arm’s length. When Afellay did get in behind as the half-hour mark approached, Okore stopped him in his tracks with a crucial, well-timed tackle just as the Dutch midfielder was about to shoot.
On the rare occasions Villa looked threatening they lacked quality and composure in the final third. Carles Gil and Ashley Westwood were way off target with long-range efforts while in first-half injury time Jordan Veretout found himself in a decent position just inside the penalty area from Alan Hutton’s pass but snatched at the chance and dragged his shot wide.
Villa’s good defensive work was undone at the beginning of the second half.
Five minutes after the restart Westwood caught Phil Bardsley with a high boot as both players contested Shaqiri’s lovely, lofted reverse pass. Arnautovic blasted the resulting penalty straight down the centre.
After 56 minutes it was 2-0 – and it was Arnautovic again. His header from Afellay’s cross looped up in the air but the Austrian reacted quickest to chest the ball over the line from a yard out.
Wollscheid sent a header inches wide as Stoke threatened a third goal but it was Villa who scored next when the ball fell kindly to Bacuna and he hit a shot across Jack Butland and into the far corner of the net from the right side of the penalty area.
Villa still had time to almost shoot themselves in the foot again late on as Bunn had to dive at full stretch to push away a header from Okore.