Stoke's trip to Tottenham could be wake-up call after poor play in wins
Despite Stoke winning 1-0 in their last game against Crystal Palace, it was very much a case of one side being not quite as bad as the other, which means that Sunday's trip to Tottenham could prove something of a wake-up call for Mark Hughes and his men.
In isolation, there is nothing wrong with playing poorly and winning. But the Stoke players have flattered to deceive for the majority of the campaign and in Spurs they will be up against a team who have picked up much where they left off last season -- hanging on to the coattails of the title chasers in the hope of upsetting the established order.
Tottenham's season has hit a speed bump in recent weeks, though, and their continued involvement in both the Europa League and FA Cup means that by the time they face Stoke, Spurs will have played three games since their opponents last featured in the league.
The Potters, meanwhile, have taken the opportunity of an early FA Cup exit to undergo a warm-weather training camp over in Dubai. It's a trip that has proved beneficial for Hughes in recent seasons, but the fact that it has become all but a perennial certainty perhaps illustrates just how poor they have been in that competition under the boss.
Having conceded for fun at the start of the season the defence has improved, but it has seemingly come at the cost of the open and expansive style that the manager worked so hard to instil in his players. That initial poor run of form was halted with the solid pairing of Glenn Whelan and Geoff Cameron in defensive midfield, a duo on the verge of being reunited following the latter's return to training.
What looked like a fairly innocuous injury has turned into a four-month nightmare for a player who was finally getting a run of starts in his preferred position in front of the back four. It's a role that has since been picked up by Charlie Adam and while he has shown glimpses of brilliance on the front foot, the defensive side of his game is almost nonexistent.
Defensive midfield is an area of the pitch that has struggled in the United States international's absence and having finally found his way back to fitness, it would be disappointing not to see Cameron feature there to again play his part in helping provide the platform for the attacking players to shine.
Unlikely No. 10 Joe Allen has been the surprise package of the season and it is to his credit that he has contributed so much in the final third, given how often he has had to help the defence. A Whelan and Cameron axis could well see him rediscover his impressive run of early season form, as he could concentrate on remaining further up the field safe in the knowledge that he won't be required as much out of possession.
That front line could see the return of Xherdan Shaqiri, who is also set for a recall following his latest calf injury. If that is the case, then it is difficult to see it coming at the expense of anyone other than Ramadan Sobhi, who did so well in his last game. He was a shining light in an otherwise dour contest, but recent comments from Peter Crouch suggest there is a feeling he's still not quite ready for consistent selection.
If Shaqiri does feature, he'll be expected to have one of his good games and playing away in a match where he is expected to enjoy plenty of space gives him the best chance possible of doing that.
Up front, despite Saido Berahino proclaiming his improved fitness and availability to start, it is more likely that Spurs old-boy Crouch will again get the nod to continue and hopefully recapture the goal-scoring form he showed in getting to 100 Premier League goals.
Since reaching that milestone Crouch has struggled to make his mark and it's not unreasonable to suggest that with Berahino edging ever nearer to full fitness, Sunday's game could well be one of his last starts for a while.
Having finally found a consistent feature leading the line, the stage is set for Crouch to impress against his old club. If he does, it's the kind of selection headache the manager will welcome.
James Whittaker is ESPN FC's Stoke blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @northstokie