Stoke’s battling and deserved FA Cup fifth round draw with Manchester City has brought their season to a crossroads in more ways than one. In dragging the wealthy Mancunians back to the Britannia Stadium on Wednesday week, the Potters have given themselves an excellent chance of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time since 1972, and with Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool all out, there arguably will not be a better chance for a club of Stoke’s stature to go all the way.
However, the Potteries outfit paid a heavy price for their efforts on Saturday evening, losing Matthew Etherington and Liam Lawrence to injury. It was a particularly cruel development for Etherington, who was rumoured to have caught the attention of Fabio Capello, only to see his game ended after 14 minutes with the England Coach in attendance. The severity of the injury is currently unknown, but if, as feared, he has suffered medial ligament damage, his season could be over – which would be a catastrophe for the Potters. The erstwhile West Ham star has been Stoke’s player of the season by a wide margin this term, and their attacking play has been largely dependent on his delivery and probing runs. His absence robs the team of a much needed outlet to ease pressure on the defence, not to mention his pace, which is very much a rare commodity in Tony Pulis’ team. Stoke have struggled to create an abundance of scoring opportunities, so losing a player with nine assists to his name already could have disastrous consequences for Stoke’s season.
With Etherington and Lawrence out, the club’s failure to bring in a wide player during the January transfer window now appears all the more negligent. Tuncay seems the most likely figure to deputise on the left wing, but while he has experience in that role, the jury is still out on him as a winger within Pulis’ rigid system. The Turk tormented Wigan from that position last week, but he found himself marginalised in Saturday’s cup tie, unable to exert the same influence he does when deployed in a central striking role.
The Potters’ other England hopeful fared little better in the glare of Capello’s stern gaze. Ryan Shawcross has been an imperious performer at centre-back ever since the youngster was lured away from Manchester United. However, he has been in indifferent form as of late. He was fortunate to escape censure for a handball in the penalty area in January’s win over Fulham and for his manhandling of Sunderland’s Kenwyne Jones at the Stadium of Light. His weak distribution has also become more evident in recent weeks. At Eastlands, the young defender contrived to make an awful mess of a fairly routine clearance to present Shaun Wright-Phillips with the simplest of chances.
Tony Pulis had reshuffled his defence, moving Robert Huth to right-back, Danny Higginbotham to centre-back and Andy Wilkinson to left-back. The Welshman clearly felt that the robust Huth and Wilkinson were best equipped to deal with the threat of Manchester City’s wingers – Wright-Phillips and Martin Petrov. However, Pulis’ calculated gamble was an emphatic failure. Time and time again the full-backs were left for dead and Wilkinson in particular was run ragged by Wright-Phillips.
At the Britannia Stadium – the narrowest playing surface in the Premier League – Shawcross and Wilkinson look formidable in Stoke’s set up, where the onus is on defending deep. Away from home however, where attackers are given more space to exploit, the duo sometimes look less assured. Wilkinson in particular has already struggled against the pace of the likes of Aaron Lennon and Charles N’Zogbia in recent seasons. The City of Manchester Stadium has the biggest pitch in the Premier League, and therefore Wilkinson, utilised in an unfamiliar left-back role, was always likely to struggle.
It has been over a quarter of a century since Stoke City last saw one of their players capped by England in the form of local lad Mark Chamberlain. The events of Eastlands suggest that situation is not about to change any time soon. However, as long as Tony Pulis’ men are showing the commitment and attacking threat that has seen them undefeated in 2010, Potters fans will not mind too much that their players are being ignored by Signor Capello.
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