Ask the Opposition

Ask the Opposition 33: Stoke

Pep Guardiola faces perhaps his toughest challenge to date on Saturday when his Manchester City team travel to Stoke. Stoke has been a difficult away day for the Blues in recent years, and the last visit there saw Pellegrini’s men beaten 2-0, a scoreline that could have been much worse.

To catch up on Stoke after their transfer dealings, we welcomed back Dave Frith from The Oatcake, a Stoke City fanzine.

First of all Dave, thanks for coming back on. You’ve seemingly made some good moves in the market, but are there any other areas that need addressing before the window closes?

Our only real moves in the market over the summer came with the signings of Joe Allen and a young Egyptian winger, Ramadan Sobhi. Allen had to settle for a place on the bench at Middlesbrough last week, Sobhi wasn’t even involved in the matchday squad and with both Jack Butland and Glenn Johnson injured we started the game with virtually the same eleven that finished last season. There’s no doubting that Allen will become a regular in our team over the course of the season, but there is still unfinished business to address before the window closes.

A major concern centres around back up for Butland. He’s an outstanding ’keeper and we can’t expect to have anyone as good as him as a second choice, but his injury last season meant we got to see what his deputy, Jakob Haugaard, was made of and to be brutally frank, he didn’t impress at all. It didn’t take long for Mark Hughes to replace him with Shay Given, but an injury to him at the Etihad last season demonstrated that it’s dangerous to rely on a 40-year-old at this level! Shay has been a fine goalkeeper over the course of his career, but with his career coming to its close, I’d say it’s pretty important that the goalkeeping situation is addressed, especially when you consider that Hughes obviously has little faith in Haugaard, as he undoubtedly showed by handing the shirt to Given last week.

Hughes is still apparently chasing West Brom’s Saido Berahino to strengthen our attack, but there’s no doubt that our defence needs to be bolstered as well, especially following the departure of Marc Wilson this week. Ryan Shawcross is still striving to get back to the form we saw from him before his back trouble, and Phillip Wollscheid continues to split opinion among Stoke fans. There were whispers of a bid for Burnley’s Michael Keane last season, but it’s doubtful whether they’d be willing to sell him now they’ve been promoted. Decent cover at full-back might be a good idea as well based on the performance our players at the Riverside Stadium last week.

Considering the players you’ve brought in, what would you class as a successful season for Stoke?

Bearing in mind the horrendous injury problems we had last season, a ninth place finish was an outstanding achievement. We took advantage of poor seasons from Chelsea and Everton to grab that top ten place, though we wouldn’t really expect to finish above both of them again this season. If we can strengthen the squad before the window shuts and avoid the kind of injury problems we had last season, then that ninth place position we’ve monopolised for the last three seasons would be a very good effort. Another cup run would be welcome as well.

On to Manchester City now. We’re coming into Saturday’s game on the back of an impressive 5-0 win in the Champions League. I’m curious as to your thoughts on how far we can actually go with Pep Guardiola as our manager?

Pep Guardiola and a multi-billionaire Arab sheikh? Even this can’t go wrong for Man City can it?

We have predicted you to win the Premier League in our first issue of the season, though we did predict Chelsea to win the league and Leicester to finish 17th last season! Frankly, who knows how anything is going to map out in this league?!

Ultimately I guess the goal is for success in the Champions League, though Guardiola’s record at Bayern Munich in that competition wasn’t so great. He’ll obviously have major financial backing at Manchester City so there’s no reason why he can’t win that trophy again in the next few seasons.

Looking ahead to Saturday’s game. From our perspective, is there a specific weakness in the Stoke side that we should target?

Our full-backs Phil Bardsley and Erik Pieters were very poor at Middlesbrough last week and were undoubtedly our weak link. I fancy Bardsley will be replaced by Geoff Cameron, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it will improve us at the back. Despite the tired old clichés we are pretty useless from set pieces – we’ve scored one goal from a corner in eighteen months! – so that’s something that shouldn’t be concerning you.

Finally Dave, what’s your team and prediction for Saturday’s game?

Fingers crossed for Butland, if not: Given; Cameron, Pieters, Wollscheid, Shawcross; Whelan, Allen, Imbula; Shaqiri, Arnautovic, Bojan.

We’re certainly not expecting the same performance as last year at our place when we put in by far our best display of the season (and possibly under Hughes’s reign so far), so we’ll hope for a bout of food poisoning for Sergio Aguero on Saturday morning, and a hard-fought 1-1 draw!

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