Stoke's flair players like Shaqiri could doom Liverpool's trophy hopes
Stoke City are an "unfashionable club". It's a phrase -- typically used in British football journalism -- that has myriad meanings. It can denote a team from a provincial backwater, one that has never achieved much success, or it can lazily be applied to any side outside the moneyed elite.
It's generally the sort of club that big-name players would rather not sign for, one that lacks a little glamour. Stoke, traditionally, fit the "unfashionable" description. In the first leg of the League Cup semifinal at the Britannia Stadium on Tuesday, when Stoke host Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp, arguably the hippest of the game's personalities, will get a close-up view of the Potteries club's style. Like Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United, he may find Stoke more elegant than expected.
The Britannia will be hostile. The crowd have always been committed and noisy at Stoke. The stadium feels like it was designed to be the team's 12th man, with swirling, gusty winds frequently taking the pace out of long and high balls, bemusing opposition defenders and allowing home players to read the situation and take advantage. Very few teams feel at ease in this raw environment.
The elements and the crowd create a cocktail of hostility and, under their previous manager Tony Pulis, the team added a dash of brute force on the pitch, using their unsettling physicality to unnerve opponents. Things have changed under Mark Hughes. Stoke have the skill and talent to compete with the best teams. Brains, not brawn, rule at the Britannia.
Hughes arrived at Stoke with his reputation damaged by a calamitous spell at Queens Park Rangers. At Loftus Road, the Welshman presided over a transfer policy that seemed at odds with the club's status. QPR overspent on fees and wages for players whose reputations turned out to be more impressive than their abilities. Esteban Granero made little impact despite his Real Madrid credentials, Park Ji-Sung brought none of Manchester United's stardust south with him and Taye Taiwo was shunted back to AC Milan after a brief, unsuccessful loan.
There were plenty who suspected that the 52-year-old Hughes was going down the same, dangerous blind alley with his signings at Stoke. Bojan Krkic, once a Barcelona wonderkid, arrived and the Britannia held its breath. There was no need. Bojan has been a superb addition, with a subtlety and intelligence about his game that transformed the side's approach.
This season, Hughes has shopped even more intelligently, combining big-name free agents with some bargain buys. Xherdan Shaqiri cost £12 million from Inter Milan and Marko Arnautovic £2 million from Werder Bremen. Both look like steals. Glen Johnson, from Liverpool, and Ibrahim Afellay, from Barcelona, came on free transfers and add experience. The balance of talent and willing workers -- Ryan Shawcross, Glenn Whelan and Geoff Cameron, for example -- is better than Hughes managed to achieve at QPR.
For all the positives, though, Stoke are 10th in the Premier League and have been irritatingly inconsistent. They have outclassed Champions League sides and stumbled against Watford, Crystal Palace and Sunderland. When the live TV cameras are on and the glamorous clubs are in town, they have shone. Away from the limelight, Stoke have been less cohesive.
Shaqiri, in particular, seems to rise to the big occasion. In the autumn, he sometimes looked disoriented, as if wondering how his career progression took him from Bayern Munich to Inter and then Stoke. There are moments when he appears like he is planning his next move off the pitch when he should be thinking about what's happening in the game unfolding around him. When focused, though, the chunky Swiss winger looks like an heir to the tradition of Stanley Matthews, the club's greatest player.
If Shaqiri and Bojan are anywhere near their best, Liverpool will have their hands full.
Stoke have developed into a big-game team and this is the biggest test of their season. The prize is a Wembley final and they will be confident, even though they conceded a last-minute goal in their 2-1 defeat by West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. They were disappointed by the result but, compared to Liverpool's disarray at Upton Park, Hughes's team are in better shape. Stoke lack a little physical presence but it is hard to see Klopp's team outmuscling their opponents.
The last time Stoke won a trophy was 44 years ago, when they beat Chelsea 2-1 to win the League Cup. Emulating this achievement would give Hughes vindication after being written off post-QPR. If the Welshman can fashion a semifinal win against Liverpool, he will fancy getting his hands on the trophy.
Watford, Crystal Palace fans show real commitment
In the wake of Jurgen Klopp's attempts to re-fire the atmosphere at Anfield, there has been much talk about the crowds at Premier League grounds. At Liverpool and Manchester United home games, the mood is often flat. Atmosphere is not a problem elsewhere, though. At Vicarage Road, Watford fans kick up a real noise. At Selhurst Park, the support for Crystal Palace is impressively fanatical. Both these teams lost at the weekend but there was no doubting the commitment of their fans.
Do teams need to reconnect with their fans?
They probably do. The most simple way is winning, but Watford and Palace prove it's not the only solution.
If the men on the pitch are as committed as the supporters in the stands, the fans recognise it. The paying customers want to see players giving their all. A shared sense of purpose is almost as important as winning. If you don't believe it, go to Vicarage Road or Selhurst. They may not be on anyone's bucket list like the homes of Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool, but they show you how a football ground should sound.
Premier League title race is between two teams
Manchester City were poor against Watford, but they never lacked belief that they would win. Yaya Toure was dreadful but carried an aura about him. It is clear he thinks he can turn a game at any moment.
The impression is even more pronounced with Sergio Aguero. He radiates a confidence that he will score and that it is only a matter of time. Even when they are not firing, the great players and great teams are propelled by this arrogance. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil have it for Arsenal. Meanwhile, confidence is draining from Leicester City at a time of year when the rush of games can unhinge teams mentally and physically. Tottenham Hotspur ran out of ideas against Everton just at a time when City would have been turning up the heat on the opposition.
Like it or not, the title race is probably a two-horse affair. No one else has the swagger to challenge Arsenal and City, despite all our wishful thinking.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.