Club Focus – Stoke City – Will Pulis ring the changes with Stoke on the cusp of Wembley?

Sunday will see arguably the biggest game in the Britannia Stadium’s near-14-year history, as Stoke City stand 90 minutes away from an FA Cup semi final and a first trip to the new Wembley. That their quarter final opponents, West Ham, obliterated them last weekend at Upton Park does not bode well for the Potters, but Stoke are a different beast altogether at home, and will be hoping that a capacity crowd can create the kind of atmosphere that has made the Britannia a fearsome place to visit.

2011 finds the Potters in freefall, with just one league win in seven, stirring a bubbling undercurrent of unrest among supporters. The burning questions surrounding both Stoke’s cup ambitions and their Premier League status revolve around the big decisions concerning team selection, and whether Pulis will make the big changes that many feel need to be made.

Defensively, the experiment with playing Marc Wilson and Danny Pugh in the full back positions, which initially showed promise, now looks doomed to failure. While both have more ability on the ball than many players in the Stoke squad, within a matter of weeks both were – in true Stoke full back style – hoofing the long diagonal balls in the direction of the target man – a role to which neither Wilson, nor Pugh, both of whom are ostensibly midfielders, are well suited. This, combined with some positionally suspect displays at the back, has led to calls for Andy Wilkinson and Danny Higginbotham to be reinstated at right back and left back respectively – changes that Pulis himself recently admitted he was considering.

The fitness of the wingers is another big issue. Stoke look far less effective without both Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington on the field, and are worse than useless if neither are available. Pennant’s long-standing hamstring problems have intermittently plagued him this season, while Etherington’s recent back trouble stems from a nerve problem in his jaw. Pulis has struggled to find a viable alternative to cover the flanks, with not one of Jon Walters, Rory Delap, Dead Whitehead or Glenn Whelan looking the answer when deployed in the wide positions. Stoke’s progress could hinge on whether or not Etherington and Pennant win their respective personal fitness battles.

In attack, it will be interesting to see if the quarter final will see Pulis end his stubborn refusal to restore Ricardo Fuller to the starting line up. The talismanic Jamaican was dropped after falling out of form in December, but until that point had been as important to the Stoke cause as ever. In his absence, Stoke miss his pace, unpredictability, and capacity to create opportunities for himself and others with his trickery. The striking partnerships the manager has favoured in Fuller’s stead have not proven fruitful – Kenwyne Jones is badly out of form, and he and Jon Carew are too similar to work in tandem. The Carew/Walters strike force seen at Upton Park last week was so cumbersome as to appear positively Jurassic.

Stoke’s season is in dire need of a fillip to disperse the clouds of gloom that have enveloped it; a place in the FA Cup’s final four should have Potters’ fans feeling better about the direction of their club – and its manager.

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