Tottenham do not have the happiest memories of playing Stoke and will hope for a better outcome when they travel to the Britannia Stadium on Saturday. Last season, Spurs left Staffordshire having suffered a 2-1 defeat and things got even worse earlier this campaign when the Potters stole the points at White Hart Lane with a late Glenn Whelan goal. Stoke have never done the double over Tottenham but they have already completed arguably the harder half of their task by coming away from North London with victory. The Britannia is something of a fortress for Tony Pulis’ team who have avoided defeat in 11 of their 15 home games this season. Big teams have come away with nothing from their trips to Stoke and Harry Redknapp will know his side face a real test at the weekend. Pulis has been subjected to plenty of criticism for his team’s unattractive style of football, but he is merely acting in the best interests of his club by playing to their collective strengths. Rory Delap’s flat long throw may have drawn the headlines, but it has taken much more than just the freak ability of one player to consolidate Stoke’s position as an established Premier League side.
Not that Spurs have proved immune to the Delap sling – Vedran Corluka left the Britannia pitch on a stretcher on the last visit after his chin collided with Heurelho Gomes’ knee when defending a throw. On that occasion, Delap heaped even more pain on Tottenham when he tapped home the winner in a game that saw Spurs reduced to nine-men having conceded two penalties. Juande Ramos was still in charge at the time and Redknapp will be more concerned with learning lessons from the home defeat this season than worrying about poor results under his predecessor. Delap’s throw proved ineffective at the Lane as Tottenham dominated, but the Lilywhites could not find a way past some inspired defending. Stoke ‘keeper Steve Simonsen, who was only pitched in to battle at the last minute when regular custodian Thomas Sorensen was taken ill during the warm-up, matched his rearguard for application and a superb strike from Whelan completed the mugging.
It is easy to become preoccupied with Stoke’s physical style and passion for an aerial fight. Much like when playing against Sam Allardyce’s Bolton, teams make the mistake of trying to go toe-to-toe with the Potters at their own game. For Redknapp, this would mean favouring Peter Crouch over Jermain Defoe for his height but Spurs would be better off sticking with the diminutive ex-West Ham forward and focussing on their own style. Pulis has got Stoke well-drilled and thoroughly organised and to try and beat them at their own game would be ill-advised for a set of players who have different qualities. Luka Modric has been playing in central midfield recently and his lack of physique would not seem to suit a battle against the Potters. The Croatian has come out fighting, declaring that he is not scared of being tackled and that he has improved his conditioning through hard work in the gym. With his ability to create something in a tight game, his technical skill and invention could be the key to forcing Tottenham’s more cultured style on the more regimented Stoke. Defoe’s movement will be crucial too as he looks to find space against the likes of Abdoulaye Faye and Ryan Shawcross – provided Shawcross is fit to return now his ban is over.
Spurs have lost three players in matches against Stoke in the last 18 months, with Aaron Lennon departing injured and Jonathan Woodgate and Gareth Bale receiving their marching orders. The contrast in the fortunes of those players demonstrates how much the picture has changed at the club over just a few months. At the time, Woodgate and Ledley King were the obvious first choice central defensive partnership but Woody has not played since November. Michael Dawson has emerged as the defensive rock in his place and will be the key man against Stoke’s aerial assault. Lennon has gone from being a cert for the England World Cup squad to not knowing when he will play again with a worrying groin injury that shows little sign of improving. For Bale, everything is much rosier now. As discussed in this column earlier in the week, the left-back is showing signs of developing in to a real star for Tottenham and has been one of the key players in recent weeks. Having been tarnished with the unwanted statistic of Spurs failing to win any of his first 24 league games, he has now become one of their match-winners and will hope to prove the difference this time around for all the right reasons against Stoke.