New season brings fresh optimism for Stoke
It's difficult to describe to those who don't follow football the loneliness of the summer break and the sense of excitement and anticipation that builds with every passing day until the big kickoff. Some of them have asked whether I had any plans this weekend and my response was simple: football.
Such was the predictability of the previous regime, fans would not only know the team weeks or months in advance but would also have a good idea how the season itself would pan out. The good early start that would put the side into the top 10 before running out of steam after Christmas and slowly dropping into the lower half of the table come May. Never really being under threat of relegation but unable to breach the top half became an issue for owners and fans alike. Under the tutelage of new manager Mark Hughes that unpredictability is back, but in a very good way.
The Potters may not have the rigid and recognisable identity of seasons past but that's no bad thing as Hughes continues to transform the club many love to hate into one to be respected and feared by its peers and their supporters. Such is that unpredictability that fans are struggling to pick a likely XI to feature on Saturday against Aston Villa in the season opener, with only a half-dozen names at best tentatively pencilled in for a start. Those are:
Asmir Begovic -- Clearly the club's No. 1 in between the sticks and literally the first name on the team sheet. Retaining his services is akin to a new signing, and news of him discussing a new deal is a real shot in the arm in advance of the new season.
Phil Bardsley -- While Hughes has tried a number of players at right-back in recent weeks, I think it's clear he was clearly unhappy with his options there last season. In signing ex-Manchester United full-back Bardsley, he looks to be putting his faith in a player who has settled in nicely during preseason.
Ryan Shawcross -- Stoke's captain is certain to lead his team out for their seventh consecutive season in the top flight. While his raw defensive abilities have never been in question, he's also improved the technical side of his game under Hughes and is starting to look every inch the rounded defensive linchpin his country needs. Whether England will continue to ignore that remains to be seen.
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Steven N'Zonzi -- City's temperamental Frenchman found some time between handing in transfer requests to put in the kind of performances in preseason that excused his indiscretions. He continues to be the man who makes the side tick, and one central to the transition being overseen in the Potteries. Suggestions that he would leave were unwelcome but Hughes has assured fans that he is happy and staying for now.
Marko Arnautovic -- Mercurial Marko will again get the nod to start over on the left of the three behind the striker, having finished the season on form and with the most assists in the team. Fans will be hoping he carries that into the new season and hits the ground running after a slow start this time last year.
Stephen Ireland -- Ireland will be key this term, and watching him in preseason, fans saw a player who looks a fitter, more hard-working link man eager to push on. He will most likely be a firm fixture in the side, along with his beard, and he'll be hoping to open his account against his old side to get him one step closer to being able to shave it off, having stated that it stays until he scores five goals.
That leaves a number of key positions up for grabs in some key areas of the pitch. While I could have a stab at who might fill in, the days of predicting which round peg would be hammered into which square hole are long gone. That there are so many options available is testament to the squad Hughes has assembled in such a short space of time, and with the likes of Mame Diouf, Peter Odemwingie, Charlie Adam and Bojan Krkic pushing for inclusion on Saturday, the future continues to look very bright indeed for Stoke fans.