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Tuesday night provides winless Stoke City with the chance to exorcise their early-season demons, as the second round of the league cup brings long-time bogey team Shrewsbury Town to the Britannia Stadium. Humiliation at the hands of lower league opposition has become a depressingly familiar sight for Potters fans during the last two decades, and Tony Pulis traditionally has not attached great value to the competition that saw the club proudly lift its only major trophy in 1972. However, last season’s exploits in reaching the FA Cup quarter finals might suggest that Pulis has revised his attitude to the cups. Perhaps the Welshman recognises that they offer the most realistic prospects of winning silverware for a club of the Midlanders’ stature. Nevertheless, it is likely that the relatively modest challenge of the League Two Shrews will allow Stoke to give a run out to players on the periphery of the first team, offering them the opportunity to either stake their claim for a bigger role or put themselves in the shop window with a week of the transfer window remaining.
Among those players hoping to force their way into first-team reckoning will be young goalkeeper Asmir Begovic. Reportedly targeted by Chelsea, the Bosnian has recently been agitating for first team football, and with Thomas Sorensen repeating his poor World Cup form in the league, Begovic will relish the chance to impress. Andy Wilkinson is another with a point to prove, having been unfortunate to lose his right-back spot last season. With Robert Huth tortured weekly by opposing left wingers, Wilkinson – the closest thing Stoke have to a genuine full back at the club – will be desperate to prove he is the answer to the crisis on the right hand side. Central midfield is another problem position, with at least one spot up for grabs. Danny Pugh has perhaps been a victim of his own versatility, seen as a dependable squad player who can plug any number of gaps when called upon. His best performances for the club have come from the middle of the park, offering a dynamism possessed by few other midfielders in the Potters’ ranks and – most importantly of all – an ability to keep and use the ball well. He is almost guaranteed to start this evening’s game.
Michael Tonge seems to be staging something of an unlikely comeback, a strong pre-season contributing to his involvement, albeit from the bench, in both of Stoke’s league games so far this season. Tonge had seemed a certainty to depart the Potteries this summer, with interest shown by a variety of Championship clubs. However, with a dearth of creativity in midfield, the former Sheffield United player’s vision offers something different. Pulis tends to use him predominantly out wide, but like Pugh, his strengths lie centrally, where his guile can unlock defences. Glenn Whelan’s stuttering form could open the door for Tonge to finally get the run in the side that has eluded him since his arrival in August 2008 – especially if Stoke’s well-publicised quest to freshen up the team with new faces fails to bear fruit.
It will be interesting to see if Pulis uses the game as part of his ongoing mission to shunt Dave Kitson out of ST4. The striker has been ostracised since his public spat with the manager last April, being made to train with the under-18s and even being bizarrely used as a centre-back in a low-key friendly at the end of July. Mooted moves to Bristol City, Portsmouth and Leeds have thusfar failed to materialise, but in the right frame of mind the flame-haired hitman does possess quality and would be a fine signing for someone. If Pulis can swallow his pride and play him against the Shrews, Kitson could provide a timely reminder of his ability.
There is also the possibility of blooding a few youngsters. Ben Marshall is a highly-rated winger who did well on loan at a number of lower league clubs last season, and with the right-wing berth far from set in stone, he surely deserves this kind of low-pressure platform to showcase his credentials. Ryan Shotton meanwhile excelled at Championship Barnsley last term and is another potential solution to the right-back problem. Pulis will also be aware that Shotton possesses a mighty throw, given that 34-year-old Rory Delap’s legs (and arms) are not going to last forever.
Regardless of who takes the field tonight, Stoke should possess the quality throughout their squad to see off their Shropshire opponents, but fans will be grimly aware that life is rarely so straightforward for the Potters. A cup run would be a welcome tonic however, especially as the team find themselves on a losing streak. Any road that leads to Wembley should not be ignored.