Reading knew what they were in for when they turned up at the Britannia and they got exactly what was promised, a tough, bruising encounter that was always going to lack quality and come down to one or two key moments. Unfortunately for Reading, those key moments went the way of the hosts who deservedly took all three points as Reading's recent good run came to an end.
Reading's move back to 4-5-1 has certainly solidified the team but on days like today it highlighted how we do still lack a key bit of quality across the midfield five to unlock a strong physical team like Stoke.
Going in to the game Brian McDermott made one change from the side that had beaten Sunderland, with Nick Blackman making his full debut in place of Garath McCleary. There was also no place in the 18 for Danny Guthrie who missed the trip to look after his heavily pregnant wife, so Noel Hunt came back onto the bench.
The first half an hour of this game was about as uninteresting as you're likely to get in the Premier League. The only real chance was a Stoke corner that flashed across the box but otherwise Reading dealt well with the continuous long-ball assault from the hosts.
Good set pieces are one of Stoke's key strengths and they provided the home side with a series of chances as the half began to draw to a close. First Shawcross saw his effort well tipped over by Adam Federici, before an acrobatic effort from Peter Crouch forced another fine save from the Aussie 'keeper. Then came the best chance, as Stephen Kelly somehow managed to make a block on a goalbound effort from Robert Huth.
The half-time whistle came at a great time for Reading and Brian decided to make a change to the formation, with Blackman moving higher to play just off Pogrebnyak in a much more 4-4-1-1 than 4-5-1. Sadly the change made no difference as Stoke continued to press hard for an opener and with the Royals desperate to try and escape the pressure, Adam Le Fondre was introduced.
Stoke also made changes, with Cameron Jerome and Kenwyne Jones replacing Crouch and Michael Kightly and within minutes Stoke took the lead. A ball fell in the area and the Reading defence hesitated, leading to a corner for the home side. Whelan swung in a great delivery to the far post and Huth was there at the back post, eluding his marker to power a header past a helpless Federici.
Reading tried to fight back and broke out from further pressure to see Kebe through 3-2 against the Stoke defence. Sadly with the recently introduced Garath McCleary in open space to his left, Kebe chose to play a weak pass to Pogrebnyak to his right, who was well tackled and the chance was gone.
Noel Hunt was thrown on for Pogrebnyak but the Royals paid the price for their wasteful play just second later as Leigertwood failed to connect properly with a header, seeing it loop backwards to the chest of Jerome, who span Pearce and fired a great shot past Federici to give Stoke a 2-0 lead.
Like the Chelsea game, you thought the one was dead but once again Reading gave it a go and an Ian Harte corner found Mariappa at the near post who scored his first goal in a Reading shirt seven minutes from time. Plenty of long balls followed, as did a penalty shout in the last seconds but Stoke held on fairly comfortably, and nearly scored again were it not for a great tackle from Pearce, but still sealed just a second win in eleven games.
This was far from a vintage performance, reminiscent of the defeat up at Villa but Stoke are a better side than Paul Lambert's men and you have to give Reading credit for at least staying in the game and then battling back once again when the game seemed dead. The back five were excellent but sadly let their concentration drop for both goals, while the attack was muted until the game was all but dead.
Putting this one into perspective, Stoke have only lost once at home in 13 games this season, so you can't expect to rock up at the Britannia and take three points easily. Stoke are a team full of proven Premier League players, just look at the players they could afford to leave on the bench and then sub. Jones (£8m), Crouch (£10m), Jerome (£4m), not to mention the likes of Michael Owen who didn't even get on the pitch. You can't make excuses in this division and it was a game we could have taken a point from but you shouldn't expect to get anything here, this isn't our key battle ground in the run-in.
Referee Michael Oliver was fine, Stoke were... well Stoke and can safely prepare for another season of top flight football, albeit playing a style of football that's not overly enjoyable to watch. Then again I'd happily see Reading playing that way if it means we stay up.
The lads head off to Dubai for a training camp now, giving them a chance to regroup and get a bit of rest after a long couple of months that has seen them really turn their season around. With Manchester United in the cup to come we've got two weeks until our next game, which is a massive, massive clash with Wigan who go into this break two points behind us. Defeat simply isn't an option in that one.
So there was no dramatic comeback, no Alfie glory or 'Reading time' but this is the reality of the Premier League and nobody should panic too much based on a slightly off day visiting the office of a well established Premier League team.
Our player ratings can be found here
Reading: Federici; Harte, Pearce, Mariappa, Kelly; McAnuff (McCleary), Akpan, Leigertwood, Blackman (Le Fondre), Kebe; Pogrebnyak (Hunt)