Stoke got back to winning ways and made it four wins in a row at fortress Britannia, banishing the memories of a lacklustre performance in their last match against Chelsea with Saturday's victory against Newcastle.
The 1-0 score line flattered the visitors who failed to come to terms with the Potters' movement and organisation. Were it not for the poor finishing of Peter Crouch, it could well have ended up on the wrong end of a four or five nil reverse.
With Martin Atkinson nowhere to be seen the Potters were given a fair run at Newcastle, a luxury not afforded to them in the earlier meeting between the two sides. Saturday's game showcased a side becoming more and more at ease with what the manager is asking of them as they put in a controlled and assured performance, building from the back and exposing the various pockets of space left by the visitors.
Marshalling things from the back was Ryan Shawcross, making his 200th Premier League appearance in the centre of defence. The clean sheet was a welcome reward for the player who continues to be the model of consistency; a more fitting accolade, though, would be the recognition he deserves from his national team manager who continues to ignore his form. He is one who has improved under Mark Hughes, his range of passing is varied and he’s shown that he is happy on either foot for both short and long passes to his team mates. His anticipation has always been impressive but with his self-confidence at an all-time high, he is more than happy to step up into the middle third to win and distribute play.
- Highlights: Stoke 1-0 Newcastle (U.S. only)
In front of him the willing Glen Whelan was back to his best, working tirelessly to harass the opposition and fill in for his colleagues in the defensive third. He’s another who is clearly loving life under the new manager and when the side play well he is more often than not one of the main reasons. His play is nothing spectacular but it is tidy and assured, allowing the more creative players to do their thing. People talk about those players who do the things you don't notice, normally to defend ineffective players, but Whelan is anything but and remains an important player in the new system.
One of those creative players, Marko Arnautovic, took centre stage with another dazzling performance on the left side. It was a slow start to the game for him and on a couple of occasions his teammates got on his back for not tracking back, but the second half saw him come to life and run the show.
It helped that he was assisted by a much improved Erik Pieters; when both are on form it makes for a devastating left side and that's exactly what happened on Saturday, with the ball moving between them more than any other pass combination. The Austrian showed no lack of pace as he outstripped the Newcastle back line with ease, but it was his delivery that was most impressive as he put no fewer than three key passes into the area, all of which deserved much better finishes.
Crouch didn't have his best game; he held the ball up well enough but his finishing left a lot to be desired. Regular readers will know I have long since criticised "two metre Peter" for his inability to attack a cross and this was again the case as he failed to score from two gilt edged chances. For someone who is 6'7" there is no excuse in failing to get under a ball that is crossed in; in fact, his penchant for not getting off the ground when a ball comes in is frustrating. For me though, what it shows is that the stage is set and ready for a powerful striker to come in and make a real difference, hopefully at least one of whom will arrive in the summer.
Saturday's win puts Stoke on 43 points, just three away from Newcastle and five shy of Southampton following the Saints' loss to Cardiff. It's they who are up next for the Potters, a side with whom the fans have built up an unlikely rivalry after their shared years in the lower leagues. Another three points would be a huge lift and see Stoke just one point away from their best return in the Premier League. To have something to fight for, in a positive sense, at this stage of the season is a rare occurrence for the club. Hopefully it will serve to motivate players and fans alike in making this a campaign to remember.