Club Focus – Stoke – Midlands rivals Stoke and Wolves plan FA Cup changes

That the old Staffordshire derby between Stoke and Wolverhampton Wanderers will likely be far from fiercely contested this Sunday is perhaps yet another indication of the FA Cup’s decline. Both Tony Pulis and Mick McCarthy are expected to make significant changes to their teams for this fourth round clash. Pulis has publicly bemoaned the decision to reschedule the tie for Sunday, leaving his team facing three games in a week with Premier League games against Liverpool and Sunderland approaching. McCarthy meanwhile, has made it clear that Wolves’ relegation scrap is his chief priority.

The game should provide something of a reprieve for the Stoke fringe players who were singularly unimpressive in squeezing past Cardiff in extra time in the last round. One of the few players to emerge from that game with any credit was right back Ryan Shotton, who has looked sharp in both of his Stoke City starts to date. With the right back slot very much up for grabs, the 22-year-old will be keen to further press his case for a run in the team. Ryan Shawcross’ suspension following his third dismissal in just 11 months on Saturday will see Abdoulaye Faye partner Robert Huth in the heart of the defence. At left back meanwhile, Pulis has a selection of Dannys to choose from – Collins, Pugh or Higginbotham (assuming the latter has recovered from injury) but may opt instead to take a look at Andy Wilkinson in the position. The local born defender finished the Fulham game on the left of defence, and with he and Shotton being the closest the club possess to genuine full backs, the balance that fielding both would bring may be worth exploring. Thomas Sorensen will get another chance in goal ahead of Asmir Begovic.

Glenn Whelan is almost certain to take up one of the central midfield slots, with fans hoping that the emerging Marc Wilson is the man selected to partner him, rather than Salif Diao, who was something of a liability against Cardiff in the last round. Jermaine Pennant’s road back to full fitness should continue with a start on the right flank, with Tuncay the most likely candidate to deputise for Matthew Etherington on the left – assuming that whispers of a possible move to either West Ham or Birmingham do not progress beyond the rumour stage.

Similarly, the uncertain future of talisman Ricardo Fuller may preclude his involvement up front. New arrival John Carew is not cup tied, having not featured in Aston Villa’s third round defeat of Sheffield United, and is set for his first start in Stoke colours. Jon Walters, the two goal salvo hero of the third round, may get the nod to play just behind the big Norwegian, although Pulis has recently shown enthusiasm at the prospect of partnering Carew with Kenwyne Jones, with the former playing just off the latter.

Last season’s foray into the FA Cup Quarter finals suggested that Tony Pulis had experienced something of a Damascene conversion regarding his attitude to cup competitions. However, his public statements and the major selection changes made in cup games this season imply that he has lost sight of their value once again. Nevertheless, even if the FA Cup doesn’t matter to Pulis, the game still provides opportunities to experiment with different personnel and possibly even slightly different tactics. Priority or not, Stoke’s approach at Molinieux could well provide a telling insight into their aspirations for the rest of the season.

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