Club Focus – Stoke City – Depleted but not deflated

Tony Pulis could be forgiven for borrowing a catchphrase from his mentor Harry Redknapp as his Stoke City side was very much “down to the bare bones” when they made the difficult trip to Turf Moor on Wednesday night. While it was hardly a vintage performance from the Potters, the Welshman will doubtless be satisfied with a draw at a ground where just three teams have emerged with maximum points this season. That the under-strength Stoke side still earned a point was a testament to their improved form on their travels this term, as Pulis’ men have forged the ninth best away record in the Premier League.

With important players of the stature of Ryan Shawcross, Danny Higginbotham, Glenn Whelan and Ricardo Fuller all absent, this game offered a chance for the fringe players to stake their claim. With Shawcross continuing to serve his suspension in the wake of the Aaron Ramsey affair, Abdoulaye Faye and Robert Huth formed a solid central defensive partnership, their years of top flight experience compensating for a combined lack of pace to deal fairly comfortably with whatever the home side could throw at them. Brian Laws’ team enjoyed more success down Stoke’s left wing however, where Danny Collins at left back once again demonstrated his defensive shortcomings in comparison with Higginbotham. The former Sunderland player of the season is something of an enigma. Tidy and intelligent on the ball, his good work is utterly negated by a total lack of positional awareness as time and again he deserts the opposing winger in favour of being drawn into the centre – like a moth to a flame – leaving the wide player all the time and space he needs to whip in a dangerous cross. So it proved once again at Turf Moor.

Laws targeted Collins, as other Premier League managers Roberto Mancini and Martin O’Neill have this season. Burnley right-back Tyrone Mears bombed forward while rapid, Stoke-born forward Martin Paterson continually drifted wide to exploit the space left by the Stoke defender. Crosses fizzed into the Stoke box from the Burnley right, and the Potters were fortunate to only be punished once, Paterson slipping easily past Collins to centre for Nugent to head in the Clarets’ equalizer. A back injury sustained by star striker Fuller gave Pulis a chance to look at his other striking options. Mama Sidibe, fast becoming a target of the boo-boys as a consequence of his lack of goals, silenced his critics to some extent with a fine flick on from Delap’s throw to allow Tuncay to open the scoring. The big Malian was replaced for the final half hour by Dave Kitson, but the former Reading man once again proved ineffectual, as he had at Stamford Bridge the previous Sunday.

The Tuncay conundrum continues to provide a headache for the Potters’ boss. Seven months since his arrival, the Turk’s best position within Pulis’ system is no clearer than when he arrived from Middlesbrough in August. Deployed up front alongside Sidibe, Sanli showed the best and worst of his game – the timing of his run and jump to head Stoke in front on 25 minutes was immaculate. Yet the ease with which he was knocked off the ball was alarming, especially against a Burnley side hardly renowned for its physicality, while his first touch was frequently too heavy for a player of his cultured reputation. Moreover, Tuncay seemed not to be on the same wavelength as his teammates, mistiming runs and passes to bring the Potters’ attacking play screeching to a halt. A player with the capacity to thrill and frustrate in equal measure, Tuncay is yet to consistently produce his best form in a Stoke shirt. The big concern for the club’s hierarchy and supporters is that he might not produce that form at all if he fails to properly get to grips with the Potters’ style of play. Perhaps his new national manager Guus Hiddink can succeed where Pulis has thus far failed in coaxing some consistency from the talented Turk.

With the club in the grip of its worst injury crisis since promotion, some relief was at least provided by the return of player of the season-elect Matthew Etherington. In spite of not being 100% fit, Etherington played the full 90 minutes and proved a constant menace when utilised on his favoured left flank before fading when moved to the less familiar right – the more defensively minded Danny Pugh introduced on the left to counter the growing influence of the roaming Mears. Etherington’s return is a massive boost for the Potters. With a difficult home game against Aston Villa approaching and their quartet of key men expected to remain sidelined, Pulis’ outfit will need to rely on the quality of Etherington and Tuncay more than ever.

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