Stoke brushed away their early-season blues with a comfortable 3-0 win over League Two Portsmouth, a result which sees them through to the fourth round of the Carling Cup where they will face Sunderland.
The cup competition came at the right time, providing a welcome and useful distraction and giving the players a chance to dust away some of the cobwebs in an environment more forgiving than the rough and tumble of the Premier League. In that respect, I was hoping that the lineup would be largely made up of the same side that fared so poorly away at Hull, perhaps with one or two fringe players coming in to add a bit of fresh impetus. Instead manager Mark Hughes opted for nine changes to the starting XI from that game, including a recall for ex-Pompey man Peter Crouch.
I can understand why so many changes were made -- the squad is bigger than it has ever been -- and with rumours of player discontent from one or two on the fringe, the match gave Hughes the opportunity to give them a chance to stake their claim for a starting spot. There is one player, though, I feel would have benefitted most from a start against Pompey and that was Mame Diouf. He's had a difficult start to life back in England and given that he is very much a confidence player, the opportunity to feature and bag a goal or two against inferior opposition seemed on the face of it to be a no-brainer; alas, it was not meant to be. While Crouch's goal will have buoyed him personally, I'm not sure that giving valuable minutes to him when he is unlikely to feature much in the coming weeks -- at the expense of the side's leading striker -- was a particularly good idea.
That decision aside though, I think the game served its purpose by allowing the likes of Marc Muniesa and Charlie Adam to showcase their relative merits as well as giving Robert Huth a platform to improve his fitness and match sharpness in the hope he might soon usurp the calamitous Marc Wilson. The game was also Victor Moses' first in the red and white of his new club, and while the opposition currently reside three divisions below the Potters, a scintillating man of the match performance from him will do his confidence no harm at all. While Marko Arnautovic has shown himself to be a great player, his style is very different, and in Moses, Stoke fans saw a player more in the mould of Oussama Assaidi: a direct player with trickery and pace to burn -- a welcome departure from the static performances of his colleagues in recent weeks.
The side has certainly missed those attributes, and with Arnautovic's slow start to the season, he will have been left in no doubt that his place is in danger following such an assured and impressive debut. It helps that both players can operate on either flank, and with Peter Odemwingie also struggling to match the level of last season's heroics, I imagine it will be a fight between those two to decide who will occupy the opposite side to Moses. Saturday's daunting trip to the Etihad to take on champions Manchester City will perhaps test that theory and, much like the game against Portsmouth, the pressure on the side will be low, with few expecting anything other than a Stoke defeat.
I expect the side will remain much the same, bar a few potential changes in personnel -- I'd imagine that Moses has done enough to warrant his first league start for the club over on the left and that leaves Hughes with that decision to make on the opposite flank. It may well be that my theory of a two-horse battle there is ill-conceived and the manager instead opts for the work rate and confidence of Jon Walters, who managed to bag himself a couple of goals. I would personally prefer the wide positions to be occupied with pace, which may open up a space in the withdrawn role behind the striker for the much-maligned Irishman. The possibilities are almost endless given the options now available all over the pitch and to second-guess Hughes' lineup is proving a weekly exercise in futility. The remit is simple, though, for those lucky enough to get the nod; the fans aren't expecting a win, but what they do expect is a performance more befitting the collective ability of the team. As long as that happens, they will be more than happy come Saturday evening.