Preview: Stoke City

A win at Blackpool to enter the final international break of the season with has provided Coventry City with a sight of the play-offs as the campaign enters its final stretch. A week off has provided a welcome rest to a thin squad, but with little improvement on the injury situation, it will pretty much have to be the current set of players who will see the Sky Blues through a make-or-break set of eight games that could completely change the club’s fortunes.

After a run of games against lowly, out-of-form opponents, the fixtures are starting to look trickier over the next few weeks, starting with a clash with a rejuvenated Stoke City side. The Potters are finally showing signs of brushing off their post-Premier League funk under a manager in Alex Neil who is very tactically astute and has a penchant for puncturing the pride of teams with uppity aspirations. It would be a significant boon to Coventry City’s play-off hopes if they can come out of this game with three points.

Expected Line-Up

Possible Line-Up (3-5-2): Wilson; McNally, McFadzean, Doyle; Dabo, Sheaf, Eccles, Hamer, Bidwell; Godden, Gyokeres.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the benefit of last week’s international break for Coventry City has been the time off for the majority of the squad, with the drawback being that none of the longer-term injury absentees look to be any closer to returning. The one exception to that is Jamie Allen, but it is likely to be a stretch for him to be fit enough to be in serious contention to start this game.

That means that the big decision in terms of Mark Robins’ team selection for this game looks set to be who partners Viktor Gyokeres in attack. While Tyler Walker put in a good shift during a rare start last time out against Blackpool, the manager is clearly keen for Matt Godden to play as often and as much as possible, with the combination of a goal from the bench in that last game and a week’s rest only serving to bolster Godden’s prospects. Whether that is the best idea for both Godden and the team remains to be seen.

The only other area to keep an eye on for this game is at wing-back, where Coventry City remain best-stocked. Reports of Fankaty Dabo’s return to former powers appear to have been overstated, after a pretty ropey showing against Blackpool, which could see Brooke Norton-Cuffy come in for what would be a pretty deserved start after some decent cameo appearances recently.

Last Time We Met

After two red cards earlier in the season, anyone wondering whether Coventry City would be better off without Gustavo Hamer was provided a timely reminder of just what he is capable of back in October. In a game in which the Sky Blues were thoroughly outplayed by Stoke City for the entirety of the first-half, it was Hamer’s influence in the second-half that completely changed the tide.

It began with a through ball for Jamie Allen that was so good that not even a heavy first touch from the recipient could prevent the eventual goal from being scored. It ended with Hamer receiving the ball in his own half, playing a one-two with Kasey Palmer, driving 20 metres forward only to find himself seemingly crowded out by two defenders, somehow bisecting the duo with a shimmy of the hips, then curling the ball perfectly beyond the goalkeeper’s grasp right in front of the away end to spark celebrations of equal parts joy and disbelief at what he had just done. From then on, Coventry City cruised through the game. Without Hamer, it would have played out very differently.

The Opposition

The Manager – Alex Neil

After leaving a rejuvenated Sunderland to take on the Stoke City job back in August, Alex Neil has had a pretty hard time justifying that decision with what has happened on the pitch across the two teams over the course of this campaign. While Sunderland have dallied with the play-offs, Stoke City have at times looked in danger of being listlessly sucked into the relegation battle, no matter what combination of players and formations Neil had utilised.

Just when Stoke City were looking like one of the ultimate impossible to manage teams in the country, they have turned a corner over the past month, with Alex Neil finally appearing to get his message across to his players. The Potters now look to be a lot more like the energetic, dogged team unit that Neil’s Preston North End and Sunderland sides looked to be. Recent wins against Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers were impressive enough, but they have arguably been the better team in draws against Middlesbrough and Norwich City too. This is a team on the up and ready to bloody a few noses in preparation for a promotion push next year.

Who To Look Out For?

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Bonham; Sterling, Tuanzebe, Wilmot, Fox; Pearson, Laurent; Hoever, Smallbone, Campbell; Brown.

One of the key reasons that Alex Neil’s Stoke City team now looks a lot more like Alex Neil’s Preston North End side is that one his key generals from Deepdale, Ben Pearson, has been brought into the ranks at Stoke. The aggressive, yet skilful, midfielder has provided the team with an intensity in the middle of the park that had been badly missing prior to his arrival at the end of January. That has helped bring out the best out of another energetic midfield presence, Josh Laurent, and allowed Southampton loanee, Will Smallbone, to grow into a role as the teams key creative lynchpin. All of which has meant there is no place in the starting line-up currently for Lewis Baker, who has been one of the best goalscoring midfielders in the Championship over the best 18 months.

Another key area of improvement for Stoke City recently has been in attack, aided and abetted by that improvement in midfield. Two key beneficiaries have been Tyrese Campbell and Dwight Gayle, although the latter is injured and will miss this game. Campbell is an exciting young wide-forward who had been in danger of losing his way through a combination of injuries and inconsistent form, but now looks a big danger with his ability to get shots off quickly from wide areas. Another in-form attacking player is Liverpool loanee, Ki-Jana Hoever, who has been pushed forward from his natural right-back position recently to good effect.

At the back, Stoke City may have lost the giant ‘Australian’ Harry Souttar in January, but have seen Axel Tuanzebe and Ben Wilmot form a strong central-defensive duo recently. At full-back, Dujon Sterling and Morgan Fox are further solid defenders, while they have Jack Bonham in goal, whose strength is very much in shot-stopping, with the other areas of his goalkeeping aren’t the strongest.

Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost

Stoke City are likely to be aggressive in the early part of this game as they look to harry Coventry City to knock them out of their rhythm. The midfield is going to be the key area, with Josh Laurent and Ben Pearson likely to be quick in getting into the faces of Ben Sheaf and Gustavo Hamer in order to prevent them exerting their influences in the game. While Sheaf and Hamer have the technical ability to play around aggressive, pressing opposition, they are going to have to be switched on against two of the best midfielders in the Championship at disrupting their opposite numbers.

There are likely to be points in this game where Stoke City will drop-off and allow Coventry City spells of possession, that is another area where the Sky Blues’ midfield are going to have to be on their games for. Ben Sheaf, Gustavo Hamer and Josh Eccles have shown a good level of intelligence recently in picking their moments to push forward to join the attack, it is going to be crucial that they maintain that in order to avoid Viktor Gyokeres and Matt Godden from being crowded out in the penalty area.

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