Martin Smith: Etihad defeat shouldn't detract from Potters' impressive progress
IT'S a shame that 2013 kicked off as disappointingly as it did, with our predictable annual surrender at the Etihad Stadium, because 2012 ended with a flourish from the Potters.
The 3-1 Boxing Day win over Liverpool was right up there among the most eminent victories we've recorded since we've been in the Premier League, while the 3-3, 10-man comeback draw against Southampton felt as good as a win.
It's not easy to go 10 games unbeaten in the Premier League and we shouldn't lightly dismiss how well Stoke did to produce a run like that.
The question now is whether we leave the Manchester City defeat behind us and return to the kind of form and performance level we previously showed.
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After everything we saw prior to the New Year's Day game it's tempting to believe we're on the way to consolidating the top-10 status we've achieved recently.
But we only have to think back 12 months to remember that things don't always go as well as you're expecting them to.
Back at the start of 2012 we actually found ourselves in a better position than we're in right now, with more points from the same number of games, and yet recorded only four victories in our final 22 games.
Those two Christmas home games against Liverpool and Southampton can't help but fill any Stoke supporter with optimistic thoughts.
But the manner in which we succumbed to yet another defeat at Manchester City shows that not all of our weaknesses have been addressed.
True, we looked a shambles for much of the first half against Southampton, but anyone can have a bad half, especially when you're missing two key defenders, and we certainly used up our bad luck in the opening 45 minutes.
However, the way in which we came roaring back, even though we were a man down thanks to some shoddy refereeing from Mark Clattenburg, was absolutely inspiring.
Cameron Jerome's stunning goal didn't just give us a well-deserved share of the spoils, it also confirmed Stoke's indomitable spirit and highlighted the never-say-die attitude of our players.
For me, the most exciting thing to come from the Liverpool and Southampton games was the return of the Kenwyne Jones and Jonathan Walters strike partnership which proved to be so effective and pivotal on our run to the FA Cup final.
That's not to diminish in any way the contribution of any other players, especially someone like Peter Crouch, who has given selflessly of himself since he arrived at the Britannia Stadium, but we saw recently a return to the sort of football which worked for us so well.
It's always good to have options, not to mention a squad with depth, but we're undoubtedly at our best when we keep it simple and play to our obvious strengths.
That's what we've been doing lately and it's worked a treat.
So, what does 2013 hold in store for Tony Pulis's Potters?
Our manager has spoken about his desire for the club to qualify for Europe again, which is something I would be thrilled about.
Realistically, though, you'd think that the most likely way for this to happen would be via the FA Cup again.
A top-10 finish certainly isn't beyond us, but the likelihood of finishing high enough in the table to qualify via that route is probably out of our reach.
When it comes to the Premier League one target we could set for ourselves would be to try and achieve the feat of finishing as the top Midlands club for the first time in our history.
It's something which we've never managed before and there is surely never a better opportunity for us to put that right.
With Villa's current woes all we need to do is to finish above West Brom and that is not beyond our capabilities.
Something else we could aim to improve is an away record which continues to hold us back.
Winning away in the Premier League is not an easy thing to do, but our record of just one win in the past calendar year is below what we should expect to be able to achieve.at this stage of our journey
Our manager spoke of Manchester City's hundreds of millions spent on their team as being one of the reasons for our defeat at the Etihad.
And while that's undoubtedly a major contributory factor in another 3-0 defeat on that ground, it doesn't explain how we manage to overcome such an obstacle at The Brit, but can't get even remotely lose to doing so at their ground.
We don't always seem to nail our approach to away games, which is perhaps why we failed to get a single on-target attempt at Villa Park recently while the rest of the division seems to be taking shooting practice against their defence.
The key for me in 2013 is to somehow affect a positive change in our away form, while retaining the magic which exists whenever we play at home.
I'm not saying it will be easy to achieve, but if we can do it there is no reason at all why 2013 can't be our best year yet.