Martin Smith: Villa Park disappointment shows how expectancy levels have risen
HAVING been so positive about the way things have been going lately – and believing that our season was coming together – I was disappointed by Stoke's approach to Saturday's game at Aston Villa.
I thought we'd go there to try to cash in on our recent run of good form, but instead we seemed more than happy to settle for a 0-0 draw.
This was borne out by the fact we only managed two shots on goal.
Of course, these things can happen in any match, and I've suffered through enough 90 minutes of dross throughout my Stoke City-supporting life to not let one more poor game set me off into a frenzy of whining and carping.
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The disappointing thing here, though, was that we seemed to have gone to Villa Park set up for that kind of negative game.
The absence of the suspended Charlie Adam could have been an opportunity to give Cameron Jerome a run-out, or to put Jon Walters into the middle and let Michael Kightly have a run on the right flank.
What the heck, we could have really pushed the boat out and gone for an attacking partnership of Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones.
In the end, we replaced the attack-minded Adam with defensive midfielder Dean Whitehead. The result? We ended up fielding possibly the most defensive Stoke team I've ever seen on a pitch, even more so that at places like Old Traffords and Stamford Bridge.
To me it just seemed to be paying too much respect to a Villa team who had won just three of their previous 20 league home games and hadn't managed back-to-back league victories at home for almost two-and-a-half years.
This was one of those away games which offered a real chance to gain three points, but we didn't seem interested.
Not that a point wasn't a decent return, or that we shouldn't take great heart in yet another clean sheet to add to our growing collection.
It's just that the lack of ambition was hard to understand.
Some Stokies were more than happy with the outcome at Villa Park, and for the most part they appear to have been those who didn't go to the match.
That's not to say that everyone who made their way to Villa Park wasn't happy at what they saw, but just about everyone I spoke to seemed disappointed and just a little deflated by our approach.
We're certainly going to face much stiffer challenges in other away games against the likes of Tottenham, Man City and Arsenal.
It's all about the big picture, of course, and if I don't like seeing us play in a way which almost guarantees us the last slot on Match Of The Day nearly every week, it doesn't mean I don't appreciate the fact that we're doing well.
The Premier League is an unforgiving and hostile environment, and we've seen what can happen to teams of our stature when they take their eye off the ball.
You just hope we don't become obsessed with merely grinding our way to 40 points every season because it seems to me that this is setting a modest target for a club who have invested as heavily as we have over the past few years.
That's not the level of ambition which will ever see us truly make a mark in the top half of the table.
Still, despite my own little complaints I know full well that most Stokies will be delighted with the four points we took from the two trips to The Hawthorns and Villa Park.
And that should lead to a great atmosphere at The Brit on Saturday when we take on fourth-placed Everton, who are currently showing themselves to be the better of the two Merseyside clubs.
We actually have a fairly steady record against The Toffees since we arrived in the Premier League, and we have a real chance to continue our recent run of results with another positive scoreline.
Everton are the sort of club many Stokies hope to see us become in time, and there's no real reason why we can't do so.
Okay, so they have many years head-start on us in the Premier League, but the comparative spending of both clubs in recent seasons means we've done much to close the gap.
With only three defeats from 16 games so far and a defensive record which is now the best in the Premier League (and the whole country in fact), we have a solid base from which to go into the game and give ourselves a real chance of making further gains on our peers.
A positive result will set us up very nicely for the flurry of Christmas games and help to banish to any lingering disappointments from those of us who thought that we didn't see the best of Stoke at Villa Park.