Having moved into the top three in the division with a routine win over Chesterfield on New Year’s Day, the attention turns to an FA Cup tie against Premier League opposition that has struggled to capture the imagination.
It’s not just that most Coventry City fans will remember Stoke being on a par/below our level of status as a football club, but that they are a club without a particularly captivating narrative or set of players worth going out of your way to see.
What has raised the interest in this FA Cup tie has been the increasing pressure on Stoke manager Mark Hughes. While it makes it a more winnable game in the sense that Stoke are in dreadful form at this moment in time, it also makes it less winnable in that Mark Hughes has to play his strongest team in order to avoid an embarrassing cup exit that would not only see him sacked, but possibly end his career as a top-flight manager for the time being.
While the players will still be recovering from the hectic festive fixture schedule, the prospect of causing a cup upset will surely have raised the energy levels in training this week. For Mark Robins, he is up two players following the arrivals of young attacking loanees Josh Barrett and Jordan Maguire-Drew, but down one enigmatic, one-of-a-kind maverick in the form of Duckens Nazon.
With Josh Barrett reportedly struggling with an injury niggle, Jordan Maguire-Drew is likely to be the only new signing involved in this game. The Brighton loanee winger has a strong chance of starting this game given that Mark Robins doesn’t seem to trust Devon Kelly-Evans as a first-choice starter.
Elsewhere, possible returns to fitness of Rod McDonald and Liam Kelly should further enhance the options available to Mark Robins. I would expect Rod McDonald to start – against the club he started his career at – ahead of Tom Davies in central defence, while it’s not certain that a fully-fit Liam Kelly would get into the side given the form that Tom Bayliss is in, although maybe he isn’t suited to a game where we’re going to be out of possession for extended spells.
Last Time We Met
Our last meeting with Stoke came back in 2008 when they were closing in on promotion to the Premier League and we were scrapping for survival during Chris Coleman’s first season in charge. An Elliott Ward penalty saw us take a surprising lead against Tony Pulis’ Stoke, only for us to concede a penalty – converted by Ricardo Fuller – and then for Liam Lawrence to score a late winner.
Stoke were on an upward trajectory and have remained in the Premier League in the decade since, the same season marked for us the arrival of SISU and a continued downward trajectory. Michael Doyle is the only player for either side in that game who will line up in this one.
How Are They Doing?
It feels somewhat redundant to write a detailed preview for a Premier League club, given that there is far more coverage of them than say, Chesterfield. As mentioned earlier though, Stoke are in a bit of a tailspin at the moment and are seemingly on the verge of sacking Mark Hughes as their manager.
As with many non top-six, long-serving Premier League clubs, it’s been a case of steadily losing a sense of identity and purpose as they’ve looked to maintain top-flight status. Mark Hughes had been brought in to freshen Stoke’s style of football away from Tony Pulis’ ultra-pragmatic, physical style, but things now look to have gone stale for Hughes as well.
After injecting the squad with flair and quality from the continent – picking up the ‘Stoke-alona’ moniker – this season in particular has seen Stoke lose even that identity. The sale of Marko Arnautovic to fellow mid-table side West Ham this summer – as well as the failures of big signings Giannelli Imbula and Saido Berahino – seemed to sum up the sense of directionlessness that has gradually descended over the club under Mark Hughes.
When the draw came, this looked to be a game where Stoke would field an almost entirely second-choice XI, but the likes of Saido Berahino – on a 36-game goalscoring drought – and Stephen Ireland – recovering from a double leg fracture – are unlikely to be given the chance to play themselves into form. The likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Joe Allen, and possibly even first-choice goalkeeper Jack Butland are likely to be used as Mark Hughes looks to not take chances in this game.
Even if Stoke play a second-string side, they not only have the likes of Peter Crouch who could easily have a field day against us, but they do have a few fairly promising youngsters who haven’t looked out-of-place in the top-flight. Right-back Tom Edwards has started several Premier League games this season, while left-back Josh Tymon is an incredibly gifted youngster who made his debut with Hull against Arsenal at the age of 16. Another to watch is Belgian winger Julien Ngoy who caught the eye towards the end of last season.
While a lot is being made on what impact the pressure on Mark Hughes’ position will have on this game, it should be patently obvious that a League Two side has very little chance against even a struggling Premier League club – the gulf in quality will be more than the 50-odd league places that separate us and Stoke. We saw earlier in the season against Blackburn that there’s a significant gulf between the top of League Two and the top of League One.
It will be little surprise then that I’m expecting us to lose this game, 3-0. Nonetheless, there is still a small part of me thinking, maybe we have a chance here, that’s the FA Cup for you.