Stoke push for Europe will be boosted by Shawcross and Arnautovic
Having been dumped out of the FA Cup following a 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace on Jan. 30, Mark Hughes and his Stoke side took advantage of not contesting a fifth round tie by instead taking themselves over to a warm weather training camp in Dubai.
Thankfully, they were able to jet out to the Middle East in buoyant mood having managed to arrest a slump in their recent fortunes with a 3-1 win over Bournemouth on Feb. 13.
While it's easy for some to suggest the squad were simply enjoying a holiday -- arguably a few of players had been playing like they were on the beach for weeks -- it is a tradition that has served the manager particularly well. He has more than reaped the benefits of identical midseason breaks in the last two years of his tenure in the Potteries and will be hoping for a similarly positive response on this occasion.
With just a dozen games of the season remaining, the players will need to hit the ground running against Aston Villa on Saturday to set up another emphatic end to their latest Premier League campaign. To do that, though, they will need to find the kind of consistency that has so often eluded them and the potential return of Ryan Shawcross is the best possible platform to build on for that. Losing such an influential player for over half the season has been a cruel blow to Hughes' lofty ambitions for his side and he will be keen to welcome his captain back to shore up a defence desperately missing his inclusion.
While the forwards have long since struggled up front, having that solid defensive line behind them with their captain at the heart of it at least afforded them the luxury of being able to win games with a solitary goal. In that respect, they too will need to step up and play with the kind of confidence in the final third they showed in the win over Bournemouth. That task will be made all the easier should Marko Arnautovic also return to the side as long as he displays the kind of form that has him vying for the player of the season award.
His performances have been disappointing recently and the only headlines he has been making have been ones around his apparent refusal to commit his future to a side who took a chance on him when others refused to.
Put simply, when he plays well the side as a whole do the same and with him off form in attack and Shawcross missing at the back, the results witnessed of late should hardly come as much of a surprise.
Another player of note poised for a recall to the starting XI is Bojan Krkic, who has found himself out of the side and unused as a substitute for the last two games. Much like Shawcross, the diminutive Spaniard has proven to be a key player this term with the Potters winning half of the games he has started and none when he hasn't.
Despite what appears to be an erratic season for him, that statistic suggests his inclusion must be considered a priority from here. With a despondent Aston Villa there for the taking, the stage is very much set for the Potters to do what they've not managed to with any consistency this season; record back-to-back wins. With Newcastle coming to town just four days after Saturday's showdown, there is a perfect opportunity to get the season back on track over the next two games.
Points wise, the side are roughly where they were at this stage last season and with the table still in a state of reasonable flux, a last-gasp dash for European qualification remains on the cards.
With the past week marking the four-year anniversary of the club's trip to Valencia in the Europa League, the memory of traveling across Europe to watch their club is more vivid than ever for the fans who continue to dream of more of the same next season.