Crystal Palace ended Stoke’s decade-long stay in the Premier League with a comeback victory at the Bet365 Stadium.
The Potters came into this game needing to win and got the good fortune that every relegation battler needs when Ruben Loftus-Cheek deflected home Xherdan Shaqiri’s free kick before the break.
But their limp display never looked like preserving that lead, and a season of disappointment ended in tears as Paul Lambert’s men were relegated in front of their own fans.
In many ways these are two similar clubs.
Palace and Stoke have both become established top-flight clubs who have not spared any expense in building their squads. The difference, as ever, is the execution. Big-money buys that have failed in Staffordshire have proven ultimately to be crucial blows to Stoke. Jesé, absent today, did not have the fight or quality to keep them up after being a big-name recruit. Club-record signing Gianelli Imbula was in and out, now on loan at Toulouse as his parent club contemplate a future in the Championship.
Mark Hughes’ time at the club had become stale and the end had been nigh for some time, but the Potters’ inability to find a top-level alternative was also a key factor in their demise.
Paul Lambert promised much when he arrived in January and won his first game in charge, against Huddersfield.
They haven’t won since. Today saw another winning position frittered away and their winless run extended into the dark abyss of relegation. Stoke were sliced and diced by Palace as if the south Londoners were one of the Premier League’s elite and not a club of comparable wealth and standing.
Shaqiri’s goal was celebrated wildly, not least by the Swiss winger who ran full-pelt into the arms of his manager, but what came after was so dire, so lacking in imagination or backbone, that it was case of when, not if, they would concede.
Wilfried Zaha, a permanent menace, broke with Andros Townsend, Loftus-Cheek and James McArthur, the latter slotting home after a sweet counter-attacking move to equalise.
Palace would complete the comeback with a Patrick van Aanholt goal, the result of a Ryan Shawcross mistake.
Some fans streamed for the exits, others stood staring in disbelief, others slumped into their seats with tears in their eyes. This is not a surprise, but it is still a shock. The relegation you never see coming is always a lesson, and Stoke are another reminder to the Premier League’s ‘established’ clubs that everybody is only a bad off-season away from disaster.