Date: 24th February 2012 at 4:31pm
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Stoke`s first ever Europa League campaign ended last night despite a spirited performance from a much-changed Potters side.

Stoke took only 15 players to Spain, travelling without the likes of Crouch, Etherington and Shawcross, but whilst the deputies did themselves proud, it wasn`t enough to over-turn the deficit.

Knowing they needed to win the game after a 1-0 reverse at the Britannia in the first leg, The Potters started positively with Diego Arismendi impressing, and had Kenwyne Jones not squandered two great chances, the outcome could`ve been totally different.

But Valencia scored a controversial goal to all but shatter Stoke`s European dreams, and the Spaniards` quality told in the second half, keeping the ball and restricting Stoke to few chances.

The atmosphere at the famous Mestalla was probably unlike anything the Spaniards had seen before, as thousands and thousands of Stoke fans roared their team on in the hope of pulling off an unlikely upset.

And Stoke, without many of their usual first-team players, put on a great show in the first-half.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the likes of Etherington, Crouch & Walters haven`t been at their best for a while now, and with the fresh legs of Jones, Jerome and Fuller deputising last night – the front three caused Valencia plenty of problems.

Jones, who returned to the line-up in place of Peter Crouch, did himself no harm in the game, but had he shown a little more composure in front of goal – the fans may have been celebrating much more than pride come the final whistle.

The Trinidad striker had a great chance to put Stoke in front in the opening exchanges, but fired his header wide after a clever short corner found Delap, who drilled a cross towards the striker.

And only moments later, after Palacios found room inside the Valencia half and threaded through a pinpoint pass, Jones found himself one-on-one, but with just the keeper to beat, he scuffed at his chance and Vicente was able to smother the ball away from danger.

Stoke`s promising start was manifested by the performance of Diego Arismendi – the Uruguayan, whose first-team opportunities have been non-existent since his arrival in summer 2010, surprised most Stoke fans with a mature display, showing the sort of quality on the ball that the Potters have craved for so long in the middle of the park.

And it was he, through no fault of his own, who had a massive part to play in the opening goal.

He picked up the ball and surged towards the penalty area, and with Valencia defenders scrambling back, it seemed that the midfielder was fouled, but no foul was given and what happened next effectively put the tie beyond Stoke.

Pablo Hernandez was always going to cause problems for Collins down the right hand side, and it was his great piece of wing play on the resulting counter attack which saw the La Liga team take the lead.

After rounding Collins with ease, the Spaniard put the ball on a plate for Jonas to guide it home from 6 yards out, and Stoke were left to rue another controversial refereeing decision.

The goal did not deter Stoke though, who continued to press in the search of a vital goal – but after Jones rasping half-volley from the edge of the area was tipped over the crossbar, it seemed it just wasn`t going to be their day.

The Potters headed into the break knowing that an early goal would put the cat amongst the pigeons, but it never looked like coming as Valencia, who are currently 3rd in La Liga, stroked the ball around and took the sting out of the game.

Ricardo Fuller did at least fashion half a chance for the Potters after he was fouled just outside the area but Jermaine Pennant slipped at the vital time, just as he was about to pitch the ball up towards the likes of Huth and Jones.

One of the hottest strikers in Europe (not Sidibe) Roberto Soldado, was then introduced, as Valencia looked to put the tie to bed with another goal.

The forward, who netted 5 champions league goals in 6 matches this season, almost capped his introduction with an immediate goal but Sorenson was alert enough to block his attempt.

Pulis was understandably eager to make changes, and he sacrificed the impressive Arismendi and Palacios for Shotton and Pennant, in one final throw of the dice.

ut the fresh legs could do nothing to stop Valencia`s dominance, and the tie fizzled out in the last 15 minutes.

Positives despite defeat
Yes, we`ve gone out of the Europa League, and who knows if/when we`ll get there again, but it was an encouraging performance in the end.

I get the feeling that the tie was lost in the home leg, rather than in Valencia last night.

Certainly, if the players had shown the same vigour and urgency in the home leg as they did in the first half of yesterday`s game, then I think we`d have gone through.

But that`s football, and what now awaits is a huge game against Swansea at the weekend.

It will be very interesting to see how we set up against the Swans, and indeed against Norwich.

If anything, I hope tonight will lead to more starts for the likes of Jones, Jerome, Fuller, and even Arismendi.

Etherington, Walters, Crouch, Whelan et al have looked notably tired and out of form for a while now, and it certainly wouldn`t harm freshening things up once in a while, we have a squad, so why don’t we use it?

The shackles were clearly off last night and we played some good football at times, perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt from this…

I think I speak for every Stoke fan though, thank you Pulis, and Coates, for getting us into Europe, it was an experience no one will forget – lets just hope there’s more to come!

Vital Stoke would like to wish all Stokies a safe trip back home – as always, you did the club proud!