Club Focus – Stoke – Mixed weekend for Potters’ new boys

Stoke’s second consecutive game in front of the Sky cameras featured several parallels to Monday night’s win over Aston Villa. Once again, sloppy defending saw the Potters fall behind, and once again they were rescued by a Kenywne Jones header. Yet there would be no last minute drama this time, and the Potteries outfit had to settle for a slightly disappointing draw with bottom club West Ham – a result that was ultimately a fair one, despite Tony Pulis’ men rattling the woodwork on three separate occasions. Going into the game, one of the more interesting questions arising was how Stoke’s contingent of fresh faces were settling into life at the Britannia Stadium. The draw with the East Londoners proved something of a mixed bag for the Potters’ various new recruits.

One deadline day arrival who did enjoy himself was Jermaine Pennant, rewarded with a full debut after making an impact from the bench in the victory over Villa. The former Liverpool man responded with a man of the match performance. His tireless running won numerous set pieces from which Stoke threatened, and his delivery was superb, the crowning moment being his full stretch, first time curler from the byline that allowed Jones to level the scores. The difference that the balance of having two hard working attacking midfielders in the side has made to the team’s forward play is remarkable, and Pulis will hope that the hamstring injury that forced Pennant off late on is not serious.

Kenwyne Jones continued to justify his price tag with another goal and another game in which he was far and away his team’s biggest threat, with only a smart save from Robert Green preventing him from winning the match for Stoke. The big Trinidad and Tobago striker looks tailor-made for the Potters’ system, and should offer the steady source of goals that the Midlanders have been missing. Appearing every inch the big money striker, his is another injury that his manager will be saying prayers over this week.

Jones’ second half departure to a groin strain gave Potters’ fans their first glimpse of Eidur Gudjohnsen, but alas, based on his 17 minute cameo, the burly Icelander looks months – let alone weeks – away from being fit enough to start regularly in the Premier League. Of course, it is unfair to judge a player on such a brief appearance, and this evening’s Carling Cup encounter with Fulham should allow the ex-Barcelona man the chance to get some precious minutes under his belt.

After a promising Premier League debut against Aston Villa, it was something of a surprise to see Marc Wilson drop to the bench. Assistant Manager David Kemp had perhaps telegraphed this change to a degree with his midweek declaration that the young Irishman “needs to learn our ways”, yet Wilson had shown a passing range possessed by nobody else in the centre of Stoke’s midfield. His absence served to render the Midlanders’ attacking play somewhat flat and predictable.

Jon Walters has made an impressive start to life in the Potteries, and his toil and mobility should endear him to the Boothen End faithful. The last couple of games have seen him struggle somewhat however, and while he is being asked to play a difficult role – especially given the scant service the front two received against the Hammers – it is difficult to see how he is keeping Ricardo Fuller out of the team. The notion that Fuller works best as an “impact sub” only carries weight if a superior difference maker is starting up front in his stead. This is not the case, however, and Pulis is effectively gambling in withholding the Jamaican that the team will not be several goals behind by the time he is unleashed. Both Aston Villa and West Ham could easily have made the game safe long before Fuller’s entrance in either game.

Tonight’s Carling Cup tie throws up some intriguing selection questions for Tony Pulis, who is supposedly taking the cups seriously this term – against what is likely to be a strong Fulham team. Jones, Pennant and Walters all picked up injuries at the weekend, and all are unlikely to feature this evening. It is likely that Gudjohnsen, Fuller and Tuncay will vie for the two starting places up front, while Wilson and Glenn Whelan will likely audition for a central midfield berth. Andy Wilkinson and Danny Higginbotham will hope to press the case that they are the answer to the team’s shaky full back problem. It will also be interesting to see if Asmir Begovic starts in goal in the wake of the controversy following his alleged refusal to play in the last round against Shrewsbury. The door is hopefully wide open to alternative options given Stoke’s faltering start to the season, and Pulis would be foolish to ignore them.

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