Club Focus – Stoke – Potters to play large part in deciding title race starting at Chelsea

Thanks to a quirk of the fixture list, Stoke City find themselves in a position to play a huge part in this season’s title race. The Potters travel to the homes of each of the top two, starting at Stamford Bridge this Sunday before bringing the curtain down on their campaign at Old Trafford two weeks later. Aside from the audible sighs of relief emanating from the Potteries at being comfortably safe from the drop long before approaching this arduous run-in, Stoke can now turn their attention to putting their much-improved away form to the test against the elite. With just a point separating Chelsea and Manchester United, the Potters are aiming to be more than mere cannon fodder, but rather a thorn in the side of both sets of potential champions.

There is already a rich history between Stoke and Chelsea. The Potteries outfit enjoyed their finest hour at the expense of the Blues, defeating them 2-1 in 1972 at Wembley to lift the League Cup – their only major honour to date. The two sides have also shared plenty of heroes over the years. In 1974, Alan Hudson left the bright lights of London for sleepy Staffordshire to become perhaps the pivotal member of Tony Waddington’s Stoke team, pulling the strings in midfield as the Potters finished within four points of champions Derby in the top flight that season. A decade later, cultured Welsh midfielder Mickey Thomas took the opposite path, leaving a strong Stoke engine room to lead Chelsea back to the top tier after four years away. Potters legend Mark Stein, fresh from scoring the goals that led Stoke out of what is now League One, arrived at Stamford Bridge in 1993 and promptly set a Premier League record for scoring in consecutive games which would stand for almost ten years. Veteran goalkeeper Ed de Goey, meanwhile, became a cult hero in the Potteries after joining from the Blues on a free transfer in 2003. Robert Huth is currently keeping the tradition alive – the former Chelsea defender is now forming a crucial part of the Potters’ back line after a brief stopover in Middlesbrough.

Chelsea have won all three of their Premier League showdowns with the Potters thus far, but have made heavy weather of the last two, twice falling behind and requiring goals scored deep into injury time to finally vanquish their Midlands opponents. Meanwhile, Tony Pulis’ men are seeking unlikely vengeance for their FA Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of the league leaders in March, when goals from Frank Lampard and John Terry inflicted what is currently Stoke’s only away defeat this calendar year.

The key selection dilemmas facing Tony Pulis mainly concern the possible return to the starting line-up of injured trio Matthew Etherington, Ricardo Fuller and Mama Sidibe. The striker conundrum is the most interesting. Both Tuncay and Dave Kitson earned plaudits for their performance in Saturday’s home defeat to Bolton, yet Pulis’ praise was curiously lukewarm in his post-match comments to the local media, preferring instead to bemoan the impact of Fuller’s absence: “Dave and Tunny are really good footballers on the ball, but Ric really closes defenders down. When Ric doesn’t play, we haven’t got that pace and thrust.” Few would disagree with the Stoke manager’s assessment – the Jamaican is Stoke’s talisman, an unpredictable wizard capable of conjuring a goal from nothing, and he is undoubtedly sorely missed when unavailable. Nevertheless, the timing of the Welshman’s remarks was somewhat incongruous, given that both Tuncay and Kitson had delivered arguably their finest performances for the club and had shown signs of a blossoming understanding. It will be interesting to see if Pulis opts to allow the strike partnership to further develop this weekend, but the early signs suggest otherwise. The manager’s lamentations concerning Fuller imply that he will be restored to the starting XI. If Sidibe has recovered from the knock he picked up a fortnight ago at Molinieux, he too is likely to start, if only for his height and defensive qualities away from home.

The petulance displayed by Tuncay following his 75th minute substitution may also count against him. The Turk was furious to see his number being raised and stormed down the tunnel, shaking his head and ignoring his manager. While Pulis has tolerated Tuncay’s two prior tantrums at Hull and at home to Aston Villa, his dark murmurings about the other players being unhappy at Tuncay’s reaction suggests that further repeats will not go unpunished.

Chelsea, on paper, have tougher games than this one in their run-in as they close in on a third Premier League crown, but they can be sure of a fight, as Liverpool found to their cost last season. The four points dropped by Rafa Benitez’s team in their two games against the Potters ultimately cost them the title. Now Stoke have the chance to play kingmakers for a second consecutive season.

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