Stoke out to overcome last home match hoodoo
Stoke head into their last home game of the season hoping to buck an unwelcome trend of failing to win their final match in front of the home fans in the last four seasons in the Premier League. You have to go back as far as the 2008-09 season to find a Stoke win in their last home game, when goals from James Beattie and Ricardo Fuller saw the Potters overcome Wigan Athletic.
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But for that first campaign back in the top flight, Stoke's seasons have petered out faster than previous manager Tony Pulis' enthusiasm past the 40 point marker. These days that's not something fans need worry about with Mark Hughes pushing his players on to the very end with aspirations of breaking all manner of top-flight records. At the start of the season I said that I would be happy to stay in the league with a better brand of football; that the side are now two games away from a top-ten finish is a remarkable achievement and one that has the fans purring.
The latest team to visit the Britannia to try and quell the waves of enthusiasm currently engulfing the Potteries are Fulham, who are far from enjoying their own season and arrive desperate to avoid relegation. New manager Felix Magath has instilled an impressive work ethic since his arrival but his side's propensity for switching off in the latter stages of games have cost them dearly in recent weeks. That they are in such dire straits and desperate for the three points will play into Stoke's hands. Hughes' men have shown they are far more adept at exploiting space in behind the opposition than having to seize the initiative and break them down.
Hughes will have a couple of selection dilemmas following the positive performance, if not result, against Tottenham - the most pressing of which is who to bring in for Ryan Shawcross who misses the game through suspension. Given how well Marc Muniesa has played of late I'd expect it will be the Spaniard who will come into the side, though I'm not entirely sure how I feel about him being given another go at centre back after his debut there against Everton. It was a baptism of fire for Muniesa as the side put in arguably their worst defensive performance of the season with Everton perhaps feeling aggrieved that it was just the four goals they won by.
That said, "Muni" has done a magnificent job of shoving my words back down my throat in recent weeks, most recently following my concerns at the prospect of him facing up to Aaron Lennon. He coped admirably, putting in a Man of the Match performance and I can only hope he takes that form and assurance into the middle with him. If I can though, I'd still like to retain the smallest of concerns about his habit of going walkabout on the pitch. At Barcelona I'd expect this was less of an issue as much of his time will have been spent supporting the attack, but in the cut and thrust reality of a Premier League game he's not going to be afforded such a luxury, especially at centre-half. The stage is more than set for him to prove me wrong again and I sincerely hope he does.
Hughes' other dilemma is further up the field in the central striking area as he must decide whether to persist with Peter Crouch or give Peter Odemwingie a more central role. It’s unlikely that Crouch will stay past this summer and given how strongly the side finished the Spurs game -- and more importantly how dangerous a pacey frontline looked -- giving it another outing would seem sensible. It would mean a start for Oussama Assaidi in what could well be his last game in the red and white of Stoke and hopefully an indication from the manager of how he wants his attack to operate moving forward.
Either way, there is no doubting that the Stoke fans will leave the Britannia on Saturday evening having had more their money's worth this season. The feel good factor is well and truly back and, if early indications from the ticket office are anything to go by, so too will be the 2,000 who had seen fit not to renew prior to this season. Let the good times roll, and if they could roll over Fulham on Saturday then those smiles, if possible, might even be that little bit wider.