Preview: Stoke City

Coventry City head into the final day of what has been a season of progress with the possibility of finishing in the same position as last year. Just how much that would really mean is debatable, but there must surely be a measure of pride among the players and coaching staff to ensure that they earn the top-half finish that would be a fairer reflection of their efforts this season.

To do so, Coventry City have to avoid defeat in this trip to Stoke City. Against a team that has held similar ambitions to the Sky Blues this season, this may prove to be a somewhat useful marker of where ambitions can be set heading into the new campaign. More than anything, it would be nice not to let this season go out with a whimper.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Wilson; Rose, McFadzean, Hyam; Kane, Eccles, Allen, Bidwell; O'Hare; Tavares, Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

The big factor for Coventry City heading into this game is just how much Mark Robins cares about securing a decent final league position. While he named a strong starting line-up for last week’s dead rubber with Huddersfield Town, his use of substitutions could well suggest that there are a few fringe players he’d like to hand a run-out to with an eye on next season.

All three of the players who came on last Saturday – Josh Eccles, Fabio Tavares and Jodi Jones – probably stand a good chance of starting this game. Eccles and Tavares stand the strongest chance of getting a start as they are likely to be around next season. Whether Mark Robins will be sentimental in handing a possible final Coventry City start to Jodi Jones remains to be seen, not least because there isn’t really a natural spot in the side for him to slot into.

There is a suggestion that Matt Godden may be fit enough to be involved at some point in this game, likely from the bench given the need to manage his fitness ahead of next season. In addition, Jake Clarke-Salter’s recent return to fitness could potentially see him come into the starting line-up, depending on how likely Mark Robins views the possibility of signing him on a permanent deal.

Last Time We Met

In a dreary January midweek game between two out-of-form sides, Coventry City looked the likeliest to win at the CBS Arena. In an energetic display, it was only a familiar lack of cutting edge that held the Sky Blues back – most notably, with Viktor Gyokeres finding a way not to score after having the ball passed to him by a Stoke City defender in the penalty area.

The double introduction of Callum O’Hare and Martyn Waghorn in the second-half provided Coventry City with enough spark to finally make something happen against a laboured Stoke side. The duo applied the pressure in the final third to open up space for Viktor Gyokeres to score the game’s only goal from just outside the penalty area.

The Opposition

The Manager – Michael O’Neill

Coming to the end of his second full season in charge of Stoke City, Michael O’Neill was expected to more progress than he has. While he’s done a good job in clearing out the excess from the club’s Premier League era, making a handful of really astute signings and promoting players from the club’s academy, O’Neill has twice seen his team fall well short of the play-offs having been in close to the top six over the first half of the campaign.

Perhaps the former Northern Ireland manager is just a little too methodical in his approach, focusing on good shape and organisation with and without the ball, rather than allowing his players to let loose. However, O’Neill has also endured some pretty bad luck with injuries over the past two seasons, which has left him without key presences in attack and defence at crucial periods of the campaign. The club appear to be hoping that next year will see O’Neill’s luck improve. Do not doubt that he is a very capable operator in the dug-out.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Bursik; Forrester, Jagielka, Harwood-Bellis; Smith, Baker, Allen, Tymon; Powell; Brown, Fletcher.
Possible Line-Up

Some of Stoke City’s key performers this season have missed large chunks of the campaign. Dominant centre-back, Harry Souttar and key creative sparks, Nick Powell and Mario Vrancic, are absentees who would decimate most teams at this level. Of those three, only Powell is likely to be involved in this game.

Going against the case for Michael O’Neill is that Stoke City were able to bring in a level of quality in January that a lot of clubs at this level were not be able to. In creative midfielder, Lewis Baker, they brought in someone who has scored eight times and assisted twice in 20 from the centre of the park appearances for this club. In Josh Maja, they brought in a striker who impressed in the Premier League last season for Fulham.

The work-rate of Jacob Brown in attack will be a key threat for Coventry City to keep an eye on. With the physical presence of Steven Fletcher alongside him, Brown has notched 13 goals this season despite not being an out-and-out striker. In addition, the team’s wing-backs, Josh Tymon and Tommy Smith, can really stretch games with their drive and delivery from wide.

In defence, Phil Jagielka and Taylor Harwood-Bellis were the club’s other key January transfer additions. While they haven’t quite stepped up to fill the void that the giant Harry Souttar has left, they are good performers at Championship level. In goal, Josef Bursik is a talented shot-stopper who is one of the key players that Michael O’Neill has promoted from the club’s academy.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

In a similar position to Coventry City in the table, Stoke City have a very similar record when it comes to home and away form this season. While the onus will be on the Potters to take the game to the Sky Blues, they have tended to be better this year on the road, when they can play on the counter-attack.

While they have a number of really good ball-players in central midfield, along with wing-backs that can stretch the play, Stoke City’s lack of a central goalscoring striker has seen them fluff their lines in front of goal a little too often to take advantage of having control of home games on a consistent basis. With a pretty slow defensive line, and without a natural defensive midfielder, they are vulnerable on the counter-attack.

That is where Coventry City should look to build their game-plan, with Viktor Gyokeres and Callum O’Hare likely to be at the heart of the Sky Blues’ attacking threat with their ball-carrying ability on the counter. The possible addition of Fabio Tavares to the mix in this game gives Coventry City potentially even more threat on the break.

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