Stoke City – Shaping up nicely

Dave Kitson, what are you? Some sort of carrot-topped amalgamation of Marco van Basten and Garrincha perhaps? Probably not. But a hooked finish from the ginger striker was the difference between Stoke and Sunderland in a dour encounter at the Britannia Stadium last Saturday, and having also scored the winning goal in Stoke City’s Carling Cup tie against Leyton Orient the game before, Kitson finally looks ready to shake off 13 goalless months and make himself a regular fixture on the score-sheet again.

Despite a gaunt and formless showing in 2008/9, Potters fans have stuck doggedly by their £5.6m record signing, a marathon in loyalty which has astounded manager Tony Pulis: “The supporters have been brilliant to him and I’ve never known anything like it,” Pulis said after his side’s 1-0 victory over Steve Bruce‘s Black Cats. “They’ve never got on his back and they’ve always wanted him to come good.”

The Staffordshire-based club is currently awash with optimism following a strong start to the season. With three clean sheets and seven points from four games they found themselves in fifth place going into the international break, and with Pulis also having secured the services former Middlesbrough stars Robert Huth and Tuncay Sanli, plus former Sunderland captain Danny Collins and Uruguayan international Diego Arismendi, there are plenty of reasons to believe Stoke can kick on from last seasons groundbreaking 12th-place finish and challenge for a spot in the top half.

Whilst the powerfully built Huth should blend into the Potters collective seamlessly, it is the acquisition of Turkish captain Tuncay that has set tongues wagging in and around this historic club. Slight, skilful and prone to inconsistency, Sanli is the antithesis of a typical Tony Pulis purchase. Nevertheless, supporters will welcome the arrival of a potential match winner who can add some much needed cosmetic surgery to one of the division’s least attractive football sides.

Not that we can expect aesthetics to arrive at the expense of the bullish pragmatic approach that helped to secure Stoke‘s top flight status last term. Even Stoke’s flare players like Liam Lawrence and Ricardo Fuller have shown themselves capable of ‘mixing it’, so Tuncay will doubtless be expected to do the same. Both the Turk and his German co-arrival are far from being guaranteed starts for their new club, and the fact that Pulis is now thinking about strengthening his squad rather than just plugging gaps in the first team is testimony to the strong foundations that have been laid over the course of last season.

Whilst the architecture might not be to everyone’s taste, few can fault the pillars of Stoke’s recent success. They are Thomas Sorensen, Ryan Shawcross and Abdoulaye Faye, who alongside full-backs Andy Wilkinson and Danny Higginbottom, have formed arguably the Premier League’s form defensive unit. True there was the 4-0 drubbing at Anfield, on a night when Fernando Torres was particularly in the mood, but excepting those four goals, Stoke haven’t conceded this season. The Danish keeper is in serene form, while Faye and Shawcross have fashioned a formidable flesh-and-bone fortress in front of him. The performances of the 21-year-old Shawcross has been particularly evident, with whispers of a possible switch to Liverpool and Manchester United noted, and suppressed by Tony Pulis: “We are under no pressure whatsoever to sell Ryan Shawcross, and that’s from the chairman,” prickled Pulis when broached on the subject. It is the Manchester side that would have the advantage in any possible sale, however, Shawcross having arrived from Old Trafford two years ago and being made subject to a ‘buy back’ or ’first option’ clause by the ever canny Alex Ferguson.

With bricks and mortar firmly in place, Pulis is now looking to dress up the veranda and the balustrades. Tuncay will be part of that, and in Arismendi, he has secured a deep-lying player more comfortable on the ball than the majority of the Potters midfield monsters. Although Stoke are not as fluid in their attacking play as other Premier League teams, they do have reliable lines of supply in the form of wingers Liam Lawrence and Matthew Etherington. If the coaching staff at the Britannia have one concern, it will be the quiet form of forwards Ricardo Fuller and James Beattie – not a single goal between them since this season’s opener against Burnley. With a bit of luck and a lick of red paint, Dave Kitson could go some way to putting their minds at ease.

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