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May 4, 2014

Stoke City -- Pride of the Midlands

Stoke finished off their Britannia Stadium campaign with a thumping 4-1 win over Fulham -- a result that consigned the Cottagers to the Championship and the Potters to the history books, finishing as the top team in the Midlands for the first time ever.

I had implored Mark Hughes to start Peter Odemwingie as the furthermost forward with Oussama Assaidi, Stephen Ireland and Marko Arnautovic as the three in support and I was delighted he had clearly been listening as that’s exactly what he did on Saturday. Despite suggesting Assaidi would be unlikely to feature, the magical Moroccan went on to put on a show for the Stoke faithful in what at times felt like a one-man demolition job on the Fulham back line.

"Ossie" got a lot of joy out of each and every run at poor defender Dan Burn and it was reminiscent of the time Jonathan Woodgate was put at right back against Wolves, with Matt Jarvis having the afternoon of his life. Woodgate was subbed after just 20 minutes that day. Fulham manager Felix Magath did nothing of the sort, though, in one of his many bizarre tactical decisions on the day.

Over on the other flank was Arnautovic, who showed he is equally as happy on either foot. Marrying the pace and trickery of Assaidi and the strength and guile of Arnautovic worked as well as many anticipated and fans will be hoping that Hughes can make Assaidi’s move permanent to ensure it is the blueprint for next season.

Up top it was Odemwingie’s chance to impress and he linked up the play well. The fact that a target man wasn’t on the pitch forced the side to be more patient and clever in their build up; moving the ball quickly and keeping a mobile shape to pull the Fulham defence all over the pitch. Any long passes were into space as Stoke set about dominating play on the floor -- something that Hughes should be commended for.

Impressively, that attacking prowess has not been at the expense of any other part of the side’s game. That well renowned grit and determination remains in spades and when an attacking move breaks down with players committed up-field the opposition are quickly faced with red and white shirts buzzing around them to win possession back. That balance hasn’t been right at times this season but it is starting to be met with much more consistency as the side and manager learn more about each other with each passing game.

I’m struggling to remember a more assured and dominant attacking performance and I think it is perfectly fitting that it was produced with an attacking quartet made up entirely of Hughes’ signings. This is the shape and style the manager has slowly being working towards throughout his short time at the club and to move the side on so markedly with just five million pounds spent is outstanding.