What do Kevin Keegan, Sam Allardyce, Gary Megson and Paul Hart all have in common? The answer is that all of them have, on being newly appointed manager of a club, faced Stoke City as their first opponents.
Boxing Day will see Roberto Mancini join that list. It is a strange quirk of footballing fate that the Potters should be cursed with enduring the wrath of so many players desperate to impress a new manager, and one which has rarely had a happy ending for the Potteries club. However, judging by the spirited performance in defeat to the league’s form side, Aston Villa, on Saturday, there is cause for optimism that Tony Pulis’ men are capable of spoiling the Sampdoria legend’s big day.
Stoke adopted a more positive approach than expected at Villa Park and took the game to the Villans. The strong performance did not, however, yield the result it deserved thanks to a combination of poor finishing and appalling officiating. There are many positives for the Potters to take from this narrow loss however. Stoke were arguably the better team, and Martin O’Neill’s relief at emerging with all three points told in his heralding the result as Villa’s “biggest and most important” of the season.
While the Potters were lacking in front of goal, the fact that they managed to fashion so many opportunities against opposition of such quality is in itself encouraging. Since promotion, Pulis’ side has struggled to create many chances, particularly from open play. Ricardo Fuller’s slippery skill and unpredictability were for so long the team’s sole creative threat. However, against Villa, as was the case against Wigan at the Britannia Stadium last week. Stoke had numerous opportunities, with Fuller, Tuncay Sanli, Glenn Whelan and Matthew Etherington all going close, not to mention Mamady Sidibe’s wrongly-disallowed goal. Stoke had nearly double the number of efforts on goal than they managed in the recent games against Portsmouth, Blackburn and Arsenal.
The catalyst for Stoke’s new found goal threat is clearly the presence in the team of Tuncay. At Villa Park, the Turk picked up where he left off against Wigan, causing the Villa defence problems with his trickery and invention. He almost scored a sublime goal by bamboozling two defenders with an outrageous drag back before seeing his shot blocked by Luke Young. Sanli’s first two Premier League starts only serve to highlight how bizarre it has been to see him kicking his heels on the bench for so long. Hopefully Tuncay is well on his way to establishing himself as a fixture in Tony Pulis’ starting XI.
Elsewhere, Sidibe justified his inclusion at Fuller’s expense with an industrious display. Many supporters, this writer included, had hoped that Pulis would retain the Fuller/Tuncay strike partnership that had showed such promise the week before. However, the Malian’s physical presence proved uncomfortable for the central defensive team of Dunne and Cuellar. Sidibe’s disallowed goal showed fine strength and positioning as well as a killer instinct which is often missing from his play.
The main sources of discontent from Saturday’s defeat once again concern the defence. The reshuffle forced by Robert Huth’s suspension and the late training ground injury sustained by Ryan Shawcross had mixed results. Starting his first game since August, Danny Higginbotham was excellent in partnering Abdoulaye Faye in the heart of the Stoke defence. However, Danny Collins, while solid enough in his return to the left back position, allowed Ashley Young the freedom of Birmingham to cross for Carew’s winner. Faye was also culpable in allowing the Norwegian to all too easily beat him to Young’s cross. The Potter’s captain was again found wanting and his poor form this season is such that it may be time to rest him and give Huth or Higginbotham the chance to stake their claim alongside Shawcross.
The number of players on the brink of suspension is another obstacle that the Potteries club need to negotiate. Fuller, Shawcross and Whelan, along with Salif Diao and Andy Wilkinson, are all one yellow card away from an automatic one match ban. The erratic officiating of Lee Probert on Saturday suggested that Stoke’s reputation as a “physical” side may precede them with certain referees. Pulis’ post-match claims that Stoke have been harshly treated by officials this season may ultimately do him and the club more harm than good.
Stoke travel to Eastlands knowing that the eyes of the footballing world will be firmly fixed on Signore Mancini’s Manchester City bow. Huth returns from suspension, but whether the German will slot in at right back or centre back depends on the fitness of Shawcross. Dean Whitehead will likely move back into his central midfield berth alongside Diao after an impressive showing in an unfamiliar right midfield role. It seems probable that the Pulis will keep faith in the Tuncay/Sidibe partnership in attack, given the Stoke boss’ preference for utilising the Malian target man away from home.