Club Focus – Stoke – Return to form signals happy New Year for Potters

After two disappointing defeats in their last two home games, Stoke bounced back with a relatively comfortable three points against Everton on New Year’s Day, despite never really finding top gear. The win catapults them back up to eighth, where they find themselves just three points off sixth place and a European berth.

The catalyst for the victory was the return to form of a number of players who have underperformed in recent weeks. Andy Wilkinson, for example, had turned in three consecutive poor performances in which the deficiencies in his game, such as rashness in the tackle, poor distribution and being caught on the wrong side of opposing attackers, had been exposed. Against the Toffees however, the popular right-back was excellent, dealing confidently with the dual threat of £15m-rated Steven Pienaar and in-form left-back Leighton Baines down the Everton left, in a typically uncompromising display. With the transfer window now open, Wilkinson has offered a timely reminder to Tony Pulis of his capabilities at his best, and if he can find some consistency, the right-back spot may yet cease to be a problem position for the Potters’ boss.

The suspension of the imperious Robert Huth gave Pulis something of a selection headache, with Danny Higginbotham given the nod over Abdoulaye Faye to partner Ryan Shawcross in the heart of defence. Higginbotham has not seen much first team action this season, and has struggled when he has been called upon. His last start saw him at least partly culpable for two Birmingham goals in a narrow 3-2 victory over their fellow Midlanders in November, and Stoke fans could perhaps be forgiven for treating his return to the side with trepidation. In the event, however, Higginbotham was the key architect of his team’s clean sheet against the Merseysiders, inspiring the rest of the back four with his leadership, organisational skills and bravery. Twice the 32-year-old single-handedly prevented near-certain goals, blocking a fierce Pienaar shot and beating Louis Saha to the ball on the goal line. The former Sunderland man has restored his reputation as dependable defensive cover.

Kenwyne Jones had a point to prove following disinterested performances against Blackpool and Fulham, and responded with arguably his best showing since his £8m summer arrival. The Trinidadian scored one goal and made another, and with his all-round play delivered everything that could be asked of a player operating in the withdrawn striker role in Stoke’s rigid 4-4-1-1 – winning plenty in the air, creating space for himself and his strike partner, dropping deep and linking the play and even making some vital clearances in his own area.

The Staffordshire side now have the unenviable task of going to Old Trafford on Tuesday night, ahead of a tricky FA Cup third round tie with old foes Cardiff next weekend, and Pulis will be hoping his revitalised players can maintain Stoke’s happy New Year so far.

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