‘Can he do it on a cold and wet Monday night in Stoke though?’, so goes the old adage referring to a continental talent and their perceived lack of stomach for a battle. The team who ultimately present the butt of this joke, Stoke City, are having the last laugh at the minute though after a series of impressive displays.
Under previous manager Tony Pulis, the Potteries players were notorious for being ‘hard to beat’, which was code for tough tackling, blood-and-thunder style performers who wouldn’t give an inch. This team, under the tutelage of new boss Mark Hughes, still possesses those qualities in abundance, but they have added a certain je ne sais quo in the form of attacking trio Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan and Marko Arnautovic.
These three combined with a vengeance in Stoke’s 2-0 win over Manchester City on Saturday – Shaqiri setting up both of Arnautovic’s goals, and the little Swiss ace is finally getting to grips with the demands of English football. If this trio can stay fit then they are well set to take Mark Hughes’ bold revolution at the Brittania Stadium to the next level.
As ever, where this is glitter and sparkles there is always somebody else following behind with a dustpan and brush. And in this Stoke City line up it is the midfield duo of Glenn Whelan and Geoff Cameron, who provide the brawn in the middle of the park to the front three’s brilliance, as well as a backline that has kept six clean sheets in eight Premier League outings. Indeed, Stoke have not conceded a goal in more than 400 minutes of play when defensive lynchpin Ryan Shawcross is on the field.
How far can this Stoke team go then?
At lot will depend on their continued solidarity at the back – conceding 14 goals in 15 is top four form after all (it’s less than Manchester City and Leicester), and so keeping hold of Shawcross and outstanding young goalkeeper Jack Butland in the January transfer window will be crucial.
They may invest further themselves, as Mark Hughes has been well supported in the transfer market in recent times with the funds to sign the likes of Shaqiri and Joselu, and so far the Welsh gaffer has largely delivered with the faces he has brought in.
And now, as they sit a solitary point behind West Ham in sixth and four behind Tottenham in fifth, the Britannia faithful must be dreaming of the next stage in the club’s forward movement.
The markets offer plenty of potential too. A top ten finish, for example, can be backed from a lengthy 7/4 (they are currently eleventh but level on points with Watford in tenth and Everton in ninth). In the ‘Without Big Six’ market the Potteries club can be backed from 33/1, and while that make look like a leap of faith it is only really Leicester that are offering mind-blowing opposition to this.
It’s the Foxes that will compete most readily with Stoke in the ‘Top Midlands Club’ bracket too, with Hughes’ side available from 9/2, while a Top Six Finish – and remember they are just a point behind Palace in sixth at the time of writing – can be supported at 18/1.