Barely 30 miles of motorway but a chasm in quality and confidence separate Stoke and Wolves, with one heading for the FA Cup final and the other, on last night's evidence, for relegation. Even after Matt Etherington was carried off with an injury that leaves him struggling to be fit for Wembley on 14 May, Tony Pulis's team were as irresistible as in the semi-final rout of Bolton.
Half an hour into a one-sided contest, Etherington pulled up in possession on the left wing. Collapsing on the touchline clutching his hamstring, he eventually departed on a stretcher in what appeared a tearful state. Stoke, leading by Kenwyne Jones' fourth goal in as many games, embellished a win which all but guarantees a fourth consecutive Premier League campaign with further goals by Ryan Shawcross and a rampant Jermaine Pennant.
Stoke's homecoming after advancing to a first-ever FA Cup final already contained a sad sub-plot before Etherington's misfortune. Ricardo Fuller, hurt at Aston Villa on Saturday, will miss the return to Wembley against Manchester City whose watching manager Roberto Mancini was given plenty of food for thought by Pennant and Co after his injury was diagnosed as a ruptured Achilles.
Pulis said Stoke would learn the extent of Etherington's problem when the player has a scan today. "It's a massive disappointment but we'll do our damnedest to make sure he's available," said the Stoke manager. "He's got 17 days yet. The first week is very important. Then we've got 10 days to get him strong. Having lost Ricardo and Danny Higginbotham, it's a massive blow. We haven't got the resources Manchester City have. It would have been tough enough even without them being injured."
Where there is Pennant on this form, however, there is surely hope, while the fluid movement of Jones and Jon Walters also belied Stoke's increasingly discredited image as long-ball bruisers. "They say how well Jermaine played, but look how hard he worked," purred Pulis. "He's got the bit between his teeth like the rest of them, which is fantastic to see from someone I was told was supposed to be lazy."
Pulis suggested this was as well as Stoke had played since reaching the Premier League in 2008. His Wolves counterpart, Mick McCarthy, felt it was "as poor as we've played". Were there any positives to take from the game? "Wayne Hennessey," McCarthy said, bluntly name-checking his defiant goalkeeper. "Stoke were better than us and also stopped us playing."
Pennant made the first goal, was instrumental in the second and scored the third. In the 16th minute, after Jones fed the ball wide to him, he delivered a cross despite being initially forced towards the corner flag. Bursting into the six-yard box, Jones met the ball with a header to which Hennessey put a hand but could not keep out.
Minutes later, Pennant executed a sumptuous chipped pass to the overlapping Andy Wilkinson. The full-back's volley was turned behind by Hennessey, who also made fine saves from Dean Whitehead and Shawcross before Stoke doubled their lead in first-half stoppage time. Following a cleverly cut-back corner by Pennant, Glenn Whelan's shot was unwittingly diverted by Karl Henry to Shawcross, who sidefooted home.
Pennant deservedly, if a tad fortuitously, joined the spree early in the second half. Jones, breaking from the Stoke half, swept the ball to the wide-right position, where Walters had made a supporting run. His cross clipped Christophe Berra before dropping near the penalty spot to Pennant, whose shot took a heavy deflection off Richard Stearman before looping into the net.
Stoke City (4-4-1-1): Begovic; Wilkinson, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson; Pennant (Pugh, 71), Delap (Diao, 78), Whelan, Etherington (Whitehead 31); Walters; Jones. Subs Sorensen (gk), Collins, Carew, Faye.
Wolves (4-1-4-1): Hennessey; Stearman, Berra, Craddock, Ward (Guedioura, 78); Mancienne; Kightly (Hunt 74), Henry, O'Hara, Jarvis; Fletcher (Vokes, 68). Subs Hahnemann (gk), Milijas, Mouyokolo, Foley.
Referee L Mason (Lancashire).
Match rating 6/10.