Ireland shines as Stoke edge toward top-10 target
Stoke continued their good run of form with what could end up to be a valuable point at Cardiff, sharing the spoils after a 1-1 draw against their old foes.
It was another slow start from the Potters in both halves -- an unwelcome facet of their play so often this season -- but for the periods in between they looked assured and in control of the game. It was frustrating to see the side miss more chances, much as they did against Newcastle, though it was encouraging that the ball and players found themselves in such good, offensive positions.
There were three players who stood out on the day: Stephen Ireland, Marko Arnautovic and Oussama Assaidi. After committing himself to a new three-year contract, some thought Ireland’s effort could drop off, but that proved to be far from the case. Irish eyes were very much smiling as the diminutive link man set about dictating the tempo and play in the final third. If anything, he looked to have an extra spring in his step, an extra yard of pace and another 10 percent of effort as he set about repaying Mark Hughes’ faith in him.
What strikes me most about Ireland is that he is an exceptionally intelligent player with an awareness of exactly where the players are around him, allowing him to make the right decision. His awareness is rivalled only by his control of the ball, which is as good as I have seen; calling him "tidy" perhaps doesn’t tell the whole story, but it’s an apt moniker for a player who is so comfortable in possession. Hughes has said that there is more to come from Ireland; he’s certainly starting to find a bit more consistency in his game, which is having a positive effect on the side, and if he could find his goal-scoring boots from his days at Manchester City, that would be even better.
With Ireland as the conductor linking up play, Arnautovic was the executioner tasked with making the final ball count, a role he carried out well again over on the left. He’s enjoying his football at the moment and seems to have made great strides in understanding his role in the side and what is required from him in order to succeed in the Premier League. He’s certainly made that position his own in Assaidi’s absence, but the return of the Moroccan magician will give Hughes plenty to think about for the remainder of the campaign.
I was happy to see Assaidi’s name on the team sheet but a little concerned at how rusty he might be given his lack of action over the last few months. Those concerns proved to be unfounded as he picked up exactly where he left off, running at pace and unleashing his variety of tricks on the unsuspecting Cardiff back line. It might prove an unpopular decision, but it's Assaidi who I would play out on the left. For one so slight he retains possession well, his pace and trickery pins back the opposition and his finishing is a cut above Arnautovic’s; though he should have sealed the three points on Saturday.
It’s far from a criticism of "Arnie" -- they are just different kinds of players, both effective in their own way. In fact, I think their skills complement each other and there is no reason why both can’t feature in the same side bringing opposing threats on their respective flanks. In fact, Arnautovic managed four successful dribbles against Cardiff that all came from the right side, and he often featured there for club and country during his time in the Bundesliga. It’s certainly something to try for Hughes; it would also give him the opportunity for his last look at "Ossie" before deciding whether to send him back to Liverpool with a contract offer in his pocket or not.
I think he would be a great signing, and if his parent club manage to clinch the title, I’d suggest it would only serve to work in Stoke’s favour in securing the signature of a player who would be pushed even further away from the first-team picture at Anfield. It would also afford Hughes the opportunity to give Peter Odemwingie a shot up front following another less than impressive showing from Peter Crouch, whose time at the club is surely coming to an end now. A front four of Assaidi, Ireland, Arnautovic and Odemwingie is certainly one to whet the appetite as the club seek to finish the season with a flourish.