Aston Villa's forgettable season took another punch to the stomach on Saturday, as they lost 2-1 to Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium.
Two Marko Arnautovic goals did the damage at the start of the second half, with the Villans never recovering, despite Leandro Bacuna's late consolation.
Following the distasteful end to Villa's last league fixture, as they shipped four second half goals in a 6-0 home defeat to Liverpool, Remi Garde had threatened to send out a youthful looking team, accusing the senior players of lacking the passion required to play for Villa.
However, the Frenchman did select a relatively normal XI, Mark Bunn keeping his place in goal despite some recent kind words for Brad Guzan. Gabriel Agbonlahor led the line as Jordan Ayew served the last of his three match ban, whilst Stoke had most of their big guns out, Xherdan Shaqiri and Arnautovic playing just off Jonathan Walters in the front three.
Stoke have the better of a drab first half
Unsurprisingly, the impressive Potters made a better start to the game, playing to a good standard in front of their home fans early on. Ibrahim Afellay was threatening with his direct style of play, and his cross forced Bunn into a brilliant save, when the ball struck Jores Okore and headed for the top corner.
Unfortunately for the Potters, that early close shave proved to be the closest they went in the first half, with the hosts failing to make good of their dominant possession. This was of course good news for the Villans, who showed little attacking threat themselves. Ashley Westwood dragged a shot wide from distance, but that was as close as they got to troubling Jack Butland.
In truth, it was a first half lacking in excitement, chances, and most importantly - goals. However, this all changed in the second period, and not in a good way for Garde's men.
Arnautovic at the double
Stoke's first goal came just five minutes after a restart, as Villa made things easy for them by gifting them a penalty. Shaqiri's masterful pass released Phil Bardsley in the area, and the full-back went down under a challenge from Westwood, giving Arnautovic the opportunity to make it 1-0 from the spot. He did, smashing the ball down the middle of the goal to open the scoring.
Arnautovic had to wait just five minutes for his, and Stoke's, second. Shaqiri was again the creator, dribbling into the Villa box before picking out his teammate with a cross. Arnautovic didn't convert at the first attempt, getting his angles wrong and nodding the ball into the air, only to bundle home at the second attempt.
If anything, it looked like it was going to get even worse for Villa. Given life by their two quick goals, the Potters poured forward in hope of a third, with Wollscheid heading wide during a succession of corners. However, the visitors did make things interesting with just over 10 minutes to play, clawing a goal back.
Bacuna offers a flash of late hope
Rudy Gestede had come on to offer a more physical threat up front, and the ball bobbled off him in the penalty area before being met by Bacuna, who smartly placed the ball into the bottom left hand corner to make it 2-1.
As you'd expect, that gave Villa some more motivation to go forward in the final minutes, but they never really looked like equalising, a Gestede header the closest they went. Okore ended the match just as he'd started it, almost scoring an own goal, Bunn forced into action after the defender headed a Shaqiri cross that was headed straight for Joselu.
All in all, another disappointing afternoon in Villa's turbulent season, and you'd imagine that preparations for the Championship will be well underway.