Preview: Stoke City

A limp defeat away at rock-bottom Sheffield Wednesday shows that, despite our recent run of form, survival very much remains the priority for this team. Although we are not in imminent need of a win to rebuild our buffer from the bottom three, getting three points on the board at the first available opportunity would go a long way to calming any fears that we’ll drift back towards danger now that the fixtures are getting slightly more difficult.

A home game against a Stoke City that are one of the best away teams in the Championship is going to be a challenge, but it will be indicative of whether we have gained confidence from this recent run if we can approach this game with the belief that we can win.

Possible Line-Up

Expected Line-Up

A week’s rest and the return of Gustavo Hamer from suspension should bolster Mark Robins’ team selection for this game. If we are remain cautious in this game, it will be an indication that recent timid performances have been driven more by mentality than fitness.

With Tyler Walker and Maxime Biamou taken off early against Sheffield Wednesday, it is not clear just how fit the duo may be for this game. The return to action of Matt Godden relieves some of the pressure on Tyler Walker to not only play through fatigue but to be the team’s main goal threat. If both are fit for this game, it will be interesting to see whether Robins pairs what are two fairly similar strikers – as he had appeared keen to do earlier in the campaign – or, if he only plays one of the two, which one is higher up in the manager’s pecking order.

Elsewhere, there isn’t too much capacity for change. Gustavo Hamer’s return to the side can be taken as given after the lack of drive and skill in the centre of the park against Sheffield Wednesday last week. Ryan Giles remains a notable absentee from recent starting XIs, but it looks to be the case that Mark Robins prefers Sam McCallum at left wing-back for his physicality.

Last Time We Met

Just under three years ago, this was a clash between a Premier League side and a League Two one. With Stoke in the death throes of their time in the top-flight, packed full of ageing, overpaid and underperforming names in the final days of Mark Hughes’ time at the club, they were there for the taking, even for a League Two side yet to really build momentum at that stage of the season.

The Premier League side started well, spurning a couple of decent openings, before the Sky Blues took the lead via a rare goal from Jordan Willis, who headed in a Jordan Maguire-Drew set-piece. Marc McNulty then spurned a decent chance just before half-time to make it two. That looked to be a costly miss as Stoke scored from a penalty early in the second-half and began to put our goal under pressure.

However, the underdogs were soon back ahead, with Jack Grimmer marching into space in front of the Stoke City penalty area and beating Jack Butland at the near-post. After some late pressure, the Sky Blues held onto one of their most impressive cup victories in some time.

The Opposition

The Manager – Michael O’Neill

The former Northern Ireland manager – and ex-Sky Blues player – looks to finally be the man to whip Stoke City back into shape following their Premier League excesses. O’Neill looks to build his teams on a rock-solid defence and strong team spirit, which is starting to come to fruition at Stoke after a close shave with relegation last season.

In the 46 games, up to and including Saturday’s game against Blackburn Rovers, Stoke have kept 23 clean sheets under Michael O’Neill’s charge, which is the best record in the country. O’Neill is pragmatic enough to change things up depending on the opposition, but it is a lack of verve in attack that is preventing Stoke from breaking into the automatic promotion race.

Possible Line-Up

Who To Look Out For

The defensive nous and organisation of this Stoke City side is their most fearsome area. The experienced James Chester is a key presence for Stoke, but it speaks volumes to the overall structure that Michael O’Neill has imposed that youngsters Harry Souttar and Nathan Collins has seamlessly formed part of a strong defensive unit. Even more impressively, having to call upon the relatively inexperienced, Joe Bursik, in goal due to an injury crisis hasn’t impact Stoke’s resoluteness at the back.

The energy and organisation in front of the defence is also important in Stoke’s set-up. The experienced Nigerian international, John Obi Mikel, has been a key figure holding the team together in the middle of the park this season, however, he has been out injured recently, which has seen O’Neill call upon the more attack-minded, Jordan Cousins and Nick Powell, along with full-back, Josh Tymon, to form a midfield unit that remains tough to play through.

Michael O’Neill can be flexible in his attacking set-up, although has been hampered by the recent injury sustained to Tyrese Campbell, who has been, by far, Stoke’s most effective attacking player. The energy of wide players, Jacob Brown and James McClean, can be useful either in the press or the counter. Along with Nick Powell in midfield, winger Tom Ince remains a player who, on his day, can win games on his own at this level. While in Sam Vokes and Steven Fletcher, Stoke have two vastly-experienced centre-forwards to lead the line.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

The sheer physicality of this Stoke City side is likely to define how this game plays out. If we can stand up to the physical contest, we’ll stand a chance in this game, but there’s every chance that we could struggle to impost ourselves on this game – especially without Liam Kelly to call upon in midfield.

Finding a way past Stoke City’s defence is not going to be easy. Their defence is a very solid, physically competitive unit. If we end up going more direct, even Maxime Biamou could struggle to get much change out of Stoke’s defenders. Our best chances is likely to be through moving the ball quickly and precisely in midfield, which is why the return of Gustavo Hamer is so important for us in this game.

While Michael O’Neill is content to set his team up to frustrate away from home – leading to some very low-scoring contests in Stoke’s away games this season – he has shown at times that he can change up his approach depending on the opposition. Stoke are capable of putting teams under pressure by pressing high up the pitch, which could be how they look to force the win if the game is tight later on.

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