Perhaps deep down David Moyes has accepted Manchester United will fail to qualify for next season's Champions League. To think anything else may be delusional as this eighth league defeat of an awful campaign came with Juan Mata, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney all starting in what was, the suspended Nemanja Vidic apart, arguably Moyes's strongest XI.

In 2014, United have lost five of their eight games. On this evidence Mata's £37.1m arrival will not solve the lack of pace in thought and execution, or the confidence-deficit again present against a Stoke City team who had failed to record a league win since 21 December.

Moyes is not at the point where he will concede Champions League football is impossible next term. Yet asked if he could bridge the gap to Liverpool, who are seven points ahead, he felt unable to be positive. "All I can do is try to win the next game. There's a lot of games to play and we'll try and do that," the manager said.

Must United win all their remaining matches to qualify for the Champions League? "Well, we'll have to win the next one, so you're not going to get me to say any more than that," Moyes said. "I didn't win that [against Stoke] and I thought that [it] was important so we'll try and win the next one we'll play."

For Chris Smalling there is no doubt. With United having 14 matches left, three points must be claimed in every outing. "Yes, I think that is the case," the defender said. "We've got to go into it as if we need to win every game. We're the ones who have to catch them [Liverpool]. We've not done ourselves any favours with losses like this. Each point that we drop makes it difficult for ourselves. We can only take the next game as it comes and other teams will drop points as well but we need to stop dropping points. We need to put pressure on other teams."

United last missed out on the Champions League 19 years ago. "Obviously we're not in those positions at the moment and that's a worry but there is plenty of football," Smalling said. "Time is running out and we need to make sure we put things right come the next game."

Moyes was left citing the old standby of bad luck, the sign a manager is running out of answers. Jonny Evans's calf injury and a concussion for Phil Jones meant Moyes lost both centre-backs before the interval. More ill-fortune followed when Charlie Adam's 35-yard free-kick ricocheted off Michael Carrick's knee to leave David de Gea stranded as the ball wandered past him for Stoke's opener.

There have also been injuries to Van Persie, Rooney and a host of other players this term, plus other moments when Lady Luck has deserted United. For Moyes it all adds up to the poorest run of his managerial career. "Never as bad as this one," he said. "I'm a football guy and I know how it works and you take it as it comes and goes. I think this has been quite a long sustained period but I don't rely on luck. I believe you earn your luck by how hard you work. You've got to turn it yourself – you can't be relying on referee's decisions, etcetera."

After Van Persie equalised two minutes into the second half, Adam's second was a 30-yard screamer that left De Gea no chance.

Moyes did concede the team are giving themselves too much to do by falling behind in matches. "I agree," he said. "We need to stop conceding goals to give ourselves a better chance of winning."

The vagaries of the Premier League allowed Stoke's win to take Mark Hughes's side to 11th from 16th. As a former United striker who returned to the club in 1988 to help Alex Ferguson lift it into sustained success, Hughes knows what is required to emerge from adversity.

"Obviously there's huge focus on them," he said. "You have to deal with that attention. I used to use that as a motivation. From my point of view it was fear of failure. It was like: don't let anyone have the opportunity to criticise. That drove me on and I would suggest it's drove a lot of United players on. There will be pressure. It goes with the territory. David has been in the game a long time, he knows how it works, but United will give him time. He deserves time.

"He's served his dues and he's been given a fantastic opportunity at a great club to be really successful and I wish him well.

"It's difficult but he's got good qualities as a manager and he's been successful at his previous club. There's no reason why he can't shape the club in his own image and get success."

Moyes said he hoped to have Jones and Evans available for Sunday's visit of Fulham.

Man of the match Charlie Adam (Stoke City)