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12:00 AM UTC May 21, 2018
Leg 2Aggregate: 1 - 2
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 By Steve Menary

Bournemouth and Benik Afobe must bounce back after Arsenal loss

As Bournemouth prepare for the visit of Stoke City on Saturday, painful memories of the last encounter linger.

Eddie Howe's team lost 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium on Sept. 26, when a catastrophic injury to his star striker mattered more than the result.

Callum Wilson lined up that day amid talk of a possible place in England's Euro 2016 squad after scoring five goals in six Premier League matches. With just 17 minutes played, Wilson was taken off with a cruciate ligament injury and has still not returned.

Wilson is back in training and in the club's Premier League squad for the second half of the season. But he will not feature at home to Stoke on Saturday, with a return targeted for April.

Wilson has been replaced, at no small expense, by club record buy Benik Afobe, who after scoring in three successive games following his £9.3 million move from Wolves in January, was looking worth that fee.

Afobe's run of goals in three successive games staggered to a halt in the last league match, at home to Arsenal.

After spending five years at the north London club without playing a senior game, Afobe had plenty of motivation to impress but did little to suggest that Arsene Wenger made a mistake in letting him go.

To judge the former England youth international on that one game would be harsh, though. Afobe, 23, is still young and is only just getting used to the Premier League.

He also plays as a lone striker in a 4-1-4-1 formation, which places a lot of responsibility on young shoulders.

As a lone forward, Afobe did not show enough movement to trouble the visitors' experienced defence. He should fare better against a Stoke side now just five points ahead of the Cherries in the Premier League table, with six goals conceded in the last two matches.

Bournemouth's failure to score at home against Arsenal was the first time that Howe's team have not found the net since a 0-0 draw away to Leicester on Jan. 2.

And that result in the east Midlands is a better reflection of the Dorset team's debut Premier League season than the defeat at home to Arsenal, which was not helped by an inability to get shots on target.

Striker Callum Wilson has not featured since a serious injury sustained against Stoke back in September.

Afobe and the rest of the Bournemouth team will want to provide more of a test for Jack Butland on Saturday than they did against Petr Cech as they look to accelerate a poor run of form for the visiting team.

Howe has indicated that he would consider tweaking the formation and doing so against Stoke might be the time. It could also be a fillip for his expensive striker.

Towards the end of the Arsenal game, Howe reverted to two strikers. Afobe had been substituted at this point so Josh King and Lewis Grabban played together up front.

Howe is "excited" by the prospect of Wilson and Afobe playing together up front. With Wilson out, trying 4-4-2 against Stoke from the start might be a possibility with Lewis Grabban given a start.

Howe says formation changes are always considered. Playing with two strikers would certainly benefit Afobe and give Grabban an opportunity to show the home fans why he was worth re-signing from Norwich for £7m.

Playing 4-4-2 would entail changes elsewhere. Shifting Andrew Surman from his sweeper's role would be particularly difficult, as his no-nonsense performances are vital to regaining possession and supporting Bournemouth's high-tempo pressing game.

But with 13 games left and a dozen points needed to ensure survival, Howe's team need to add to their tally quickly as their relegation rivals continue to pick up points. Saturday is the time to get back on track.

Steve Menary is a freelance journalist who covers football for the likes of the BBC and World Soccer.


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