Ask the Opposition

Ask the Opposition 22 – Stoke

After dropping points against Newcastle, then watching United and Arsenal pick up wins, City need a win over Stoke in this Saturday’s early kick-off. Mark Hughes sides have been tough opponents for the Blues since he was sacked as City boss in 2009, as we witnessed earlier this season when Stoke brushed aside City with surprising ease. To learn more about Stoke’s season, Hughes’ management, and Saturday’s game, we caught up with Dave Frith from The Oatcake, a Stoke City fanzine.

First of all, I’m curious to know more about Stoke. From the outside it seems as if you’re slowly building a very good side, and you’re starting to become a more complete footballing side (no disrespect to Pulis). How much credit does Mark Hughes deserve for this?

Mark Hughes certainly deserves credit for changing the perception of Stoke. He took over a side which was arguably going backwards and though it may have been a huge risk to bring in players like Bojan, Arnautovic and Shaqiri he’s been rewarded with two top ten finishes and if we can pick up a couple of positive results between now and the end of this season he’ll have a third to his name.

Whether or not we are a more complete footballing side is open to debate though. On our day we are capable of playing some great football, but we have also seen some pretty poor fare this season and lately have been susceptible to some heavy beatings.

Injuries have certainly not helped our cause. Shawcross has missed most of this season following last summer’s back operation, Bojan is slowly getting back to fitness after last season’s knee injury and we don’t seem to be able to get Shaqiri on the pitch for a lengthy run of games because of niggling muscle problems. Glenn Johnson and Marc Wilson have been long-term casualties, Jon Walters has missed the last month and we’ve now lost Jack Butland for the rest of the season!

We’re finding goals hard to come by as well and our failure to spread them around the team is an issue we’ve had long since Hughes arrived. We are the only team in the league who hasn’t had one defender score a goal this season, we haven’t scored from a corner for a season and half and we’ve scored just three goals from central midfield positions… and two of those were in one game at Bournemouth!

Speaking of Mark Hughes, he’s not the most fondly remembered City manager in recent years. At Stoke it’s seemingly different and he’s brought in some quality players. Sum up the job he’s done so far, and whether or not he’s exceeded expectations.

I certainly think he exceeded expectations in his first two seasons though I think plenty of fans are prepared to reserve judgment and cut him some slack this season. The aforementioned injury problems have made it a thoroughly frustrating season, though having said that we were a penalty shoot-out away from facing you in the League Cup Final. Hughesy does find himself at a crossroads now though and it will be a big summer for him. We have problems in defence which have to be addressed and we clearly need more pace and goals in the team. There are several players which need moving on and though that’s not always easy to do it’s a challenge that he and the club have to face. With the huge injection of cash coming the way of every Premier League club we have to get this summer’s transfer business right, which we undoubtedly didn’t manage last year.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Manchester City. What’s your perception of us, and what do you make of our season so far?

I think the very best compliment we can make about Manchester City is that you’re not Manchester United or Arsenal! I don’t think there’s any love lost between Stoke and Manchester City is there? We’ve had our history in the lower leagues, but you’ve got far bigger fish to fry now. As for this season I wasn’t impressed by the signings of Sterling and Delph, but De Bruyne looks a world class player and his injury (along with the lengthy absence of Kompany) hasn’t helped. Having said that, it must be frustrating to see Leicester City looking likely to win the league… we’ve got Stoke fans who’re aggrieved that they’re going to finish above us, so I can only imagine what fans of a club with Manchester City’s resources must be thinking!

On to Saturday’s game. From your perspective, what’s the weakest area in the Stoke side?

On recent form it’s quite clearly our defence. We’ve shipped eight goals in our last two games (losing Butland has been a major factor in that) and if we don’t get our act together we could be in for another torrid time at the Etihad, especially if Aguero and De Bruyne are selected (which Pellegrini really doesn’t want to do with Real Madrid coming up!!!). Ryan Shawcross has started the last two games, but he’s clearly rusty and not looking the formidable player he’s been over the last six or season years for us.

The last time we played, you battered us with Bojan causing us all manner of problems in the false nine position. At the Etihad it’s a whole different ball game. How do you think Mark Hughes will set you up this time?

We really don’t have that many options, and though we have to tighten things up to avoid another bad defeat it’s hard to see what Mark Hughes can do. I think he may opt to bring Phil Bardsley in at right back and push Geoff Cameron into a defensive midfield position and go with Joselu up front at the expense of Bojan.

Last but not least, give me your preferred team, as well as prediction for Saturday’s game.

Most of my preferred team are in the treatment room! However, I’ll go with: Given, Bardsley, Shawcross, Wollscheid, Muniesa, Cameron, Imbula, Whelan, Arnautovic, Afellay, Joselu.

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