Preview: Stoke City

Two wins on the bounce puts Coventry City of the bottom and within touching distance of safety. The Sky Blues are playing far from scintillating football but have been able to consistently reduce games to tight contests. It may be difficult to sustain a run of victories playing this way, but the points are ticking over and the team is catching up with the rest of the division.

The challenge for this upcoming trip to Stoke City is simply to maintain the good things that the team are currently doing. There is no need right now to chase a more ambitious style of play in order to improve the team’s attacking performance. If Coventry City can make this another tight game, they will have a chance of claiming a positive result.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Wilson; Rose, McFadzean, Panzo; Dabo, Eccles, Hamer, Bidwell; Allen; Waghorn, Gyokeres.
Possible Line-Up

There’s quite a few moving parts for the team selection for this game. Firstly, Ben Sheaf is suspended, which will likely see Gustavo Hamer return to the starting line-up. Then, there are potential injury concerns over Matt Godden and Martyn Waghorn in attack to contend with. Additionally, Mark Robins has indicated that both Liam Kelly and Callum O’Hare are in contention for the matchday squad.

Ben Sheaf’s suspension in midfield is probably good news for Fankaty Dabo at right wing-back. Dabo looked off it against Sheffield United in midweek and was lucky not to get sent off for an unnecessary challenge while on a yellow card. With Josh Eccles impressing in Dabo’s position following the latter’s departure from proceedings, Mark Robins may have continued with the youngster in that role for this game. Instead, Eccles is needed in midfield, granting Dabo a stay of execution.

Mark Robins will be sweating on the injury status of Martyn Waghorn, who impressed on Wednesday night in place of Matt Godden in attack, but if he isn’t available, Godden, who seemed to be struggling with a foot problem, will probably be needed to start in this game. If both are out, a move to one up top with Jamie Allen and Kasey Palmer playing in behind Viktor Gyokeres looks the likeliest move, with a start for Fabio Tavares a much less likely possibility.

If both Waghorn and Godden are fit, it leaves Mark Robins with a different decision to make in how he sets up the attack. It would provide the manager with the option of keeping Kasey Palmer on the bench, which may sound an odd consideration given how much the attacking midfielder has impressed in recent games, but it may be the better option to keep him there, as someone who can break the game open later on.

Last Time We Met

It was the final game of last season and it played out in familiar fashion for the Coventry City of last year. Well on top for most of the game and creating a number of good chances, the Sky Blues only had a Viktor Gyokeres goal to show for their efforts. It was with grim inevitability that Stoke City scored from a rare attacking foray in the first-half to level the scores, with the game then playing out in tepid, final day of the season, fashion.

Of course, the game was also notable for it being Jordan Shipley’s last game for the club, involving a rather emotional send-off following the final whistle.

The Opposition

The Manager – Alex Neil

The Scot made a somewhat controversial move to Stoke City early in the season after overseeing Sunderland’s promotion last year and strong start to this campaign. On the face of it, there may not be that much difference between Stoke City and Sunderland, however, Stoke were willing to hand Neil a longer-term deal than he had in the North-East, and are also owned by one of Britain’s richest families. It has been a solid, unremarkable start for Neil in his first couple of months in the job, as he has looked to build confidence with a squad that was built by another manager.

Alex Neil is primarily a pragmatic manager who isn’t aligned to a particular way of playing other than getting the best out of the available players. That should be pretty effective with a Stoke City squad that is of at least top-half quality, if not a little better. Neil has shown that he can get teams organised and very hard to break down – especially, when ahead – but recent performances from the Potters have been pretty dominant as the manager has harnessed some of the creative talent at his disposal.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (3-4-1-2): Bursik; Jagielka, Wilmot, Fox; Sterling, Baker, Laurent, Fosu; Thompson; Delap, Campbell.
Possible Line-Up

In Lewis Baker, Stoke City have arguably the best player in the Championship since the turn of the year. After a few years in the wilderness caught between being a promising Chelsea youth product and finding a permanent home, Baker has shown at Stoke that he is a player of serious pedigree. A really well-rounded midfield player who can win the ball, distribute from deep but also create and score goals at a reliable rate, Baker is the kind of player who can bend a game completely to his will on a consistent basis.

Further excitement in this Stoke City side comes from wing-back, Tariqe Fosu, and forwards Jacob Brown and Tyrese Campbell. Fosu is a supremely skilful wide player who isn’t necessarily a natural wing-back but can really stretch games from that position when his team dominates the ball. Jacob Brown is a very industrious attacking player who has shown a good knack of popping up with goals in a Stoke side that otherwise lacks an out-and-out goalscorer. Campbell has been tipped for big things for a few seasons but has struggled with injury, when fit, his combination of skill, finishing ability, pace and physicality (his father is Kevin Campbell, after all) can make him very hard to contain.

Around those more exciting players are some experienced, reliable performers at Championship level. That is typified at the back, where Phil Jagielka, at 40 years old, has been a fixture of the starting XI since arriving back in January and there is Aden Flint to call upon from the bench. In central midfield, Josh Laurent’s energy and physical presence helps make Lewis Baker’s job that much easier. In attack, Nick Powell could prove to be another creative force for the Potters if he is deemed fit enough to start here, which may even help the once famed Championship goal-getter, Dwight Gayle, who has struggled to find form since joining in the summer.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost?

Coventry City games at the moment have been pretty predictable. The Sky Blues have been willing to cede possession to the opposition and looked to sit back in a deep defensive block, hoping to contain the other team before Viktor Gyokeres attempts to make something happen at the other end. With Stoke City’s quality in midfield, it is hard to see this game being anything other than a battle between a possession-happy home team and a Coventry side content not to have the ball.

One key area of focus for Coventry City will be in looking to shut down Lewis Baker on the ball as much as possible without leaving gaps elsewhere. With Ben Sheaf missing, the concern is whether Gustavo Hamer has the discipline to play such a role. It may be the case that Mark Robins looks to task Josh Eccles, as well as Jamie Allen, if he is started, with that responsibility as he looks to avoid situations where Hamer feels like he has to foul the opposition.

If there is one key lesson from Wednesday night for the Sky Blues, it was that Viktor Gyokeres is much more effective with players around him who can drag opposition players away from the Swede. Stoke City boss, Alex Neil, will only be too familiar with what Gyokeres can do, after the forward’s excellent strike against his Sunderland side on the opening day of the season, and it is likely that Stoke will focus their attentions defensively on containing Coventry City’s primary goal threat. That is why it could be so important for the Sky Blues to start with one or both of Kasey Palmer and Martyn Waghorn in this game, because they have shown that they are much more effective at drawing defenders away from Gyokeres than the team’s other attacking options.

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