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Diego who? Morata treble

The Match
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Hughes, Stoke need to be positive and take the game to reeling Boro

Mark Hughes' squad selection and inability to lead Stoke to a top-half win have him under fire at Stoke.

Almost a week has passed since Stoke's shameful 4-0 reverse against Tottenham Hotspur but time to contemplate the implications of their latest mauling has done little to quell the fans' increasing frustration.

For some, it was another nail in the coffin they had long since constructed in their minds for manager Mark Hughes' tenure but for many others Sunday served as somewhat of an epiphany amid an extended period of underachievement under the Welshman.

Of course, to lose so heavily to a team as dynamic and impressive as Spurs is no embarrassment but it is the sixth such occasion this season that the Potters have conceded four goals and that is a very real concern.

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MiddlesbroughMiddlesbrough
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The tale of this particular campaign is the side's failure to beat a single opponent in the top half of the table which ironically is the polar opposite of their efforts in Hughes' previous seasons in charge. Indeed, the main criticism faced by the side up until around a year ago was their inability to turn in performances against the league's lesser lights while saving their best for games against the big guns.

Their sea change in fortunes appears to be inextricably linked to a change in style which has seen a departure from an exciting passing game to a more rudimentary route-one method. It's a scenario that has generated considerable frustration that arguably peaked after the horror show of their last performance.

Much like on other occasions throughout the season, this latest thumping will no doubt be met with a half-hearted reaction that does just enough to claim a narrow victory and paper over the ever-increasing cracks. With games against both Manchester City and Chelsea coming up, though, Hughes needs to get back to the style and approach that once made a visit to the Potteries a true litmus test for any team with aspirations of a league title.

Before those games comes the visit of Aitor Karanka's Middlesbrough who currently sit just one place above the bottom three in 17th position. On paper, they would appear to be cannon fodder for a club who have specialised in overcoming teams fighting for their lives but despite their lowly position they will doubtlessly prove a tough nut to crack.

Peter Crouch was hot earlier this season but many supporters are sick of seeing the 36-year old in Stoke's starting lineup.

Away from home they have earned just one victory this term but conversely have conceded just 14 goals; a feat bettered only by Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United. At the other end of the pitch they have scored just eight times with only Hull and Burnley doing worse with six goals on their travels.

They will arrive sporting the raw but impressive Adama Traore who was close to moving to Stoke before the club withdrew their interest amid the astronomical wages offered by his eventual employers; Aston Villa. Elsewhere on the pitch, Gaston Ramirez has worked his way back into favour having failed with an attempt to get a move in January and he'll no doubt want to impress to put himself firmly in the shop window for the summer.

Those two offer Boro their best chance of a result but otherwise the onus would appear to be very much on the hosts to take the game to their opponents and secure all three points. To do that, though, the Potters will need to improve their efforts and consistency in the final third which puts a particular focus on the man leading the line; Peter Crouch.

The 36-year-old enjoyed a magnificent run of form to reach a personal milestone of 100 Premier League goals but since then has seemingly gone off the boil with no goals in his last three appearances. It's not unfair to suggest that the side would improve with another striker getting their own chance to impress and the manager is not short of potential options with Mame Diouf, Wilfried Bony and Saido Berahino all available for selection.

The other big decision to make on the day will be whether or not to change a defensive midfield duo who have underwhelmed for the most part since being paired together; Glenn Whelan and Charlie Adam. Having featured from the bench in the defeat against Tottenham It would be disappointing not to see Geoff Cameron get a recall to that area of the pitch having impressed there alongside Whelan before his extended injury absence.

Making two such positive changes can only help turn the tide of pessimism currently enveloping the bet365 Stadium but with a difficult period ahead that simply has to be married to a victory and all three points on Saturday.

James Whittaker is ESPN FC's Stoke blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @northstokie

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