Soccernet Preview: Portsmouth v Stoke
A thumping victory over local rivals Southampton in the FA Cup last weekend provided temporary relief for a Portsmouth side currently fighting for their very existence, but Saturday's visit of Stoke brings with it an unwelcome dose of reality.
The statistics are as painful to contemplate as the club's balance sheet. Portsmouth are eight points from safety with 13 games remaining, have won four games all season and face a team in Stoke that are unbeaten in 2010.
But while Premier League survival is naturally prominent in Portsmouth's considerations, their status off the pitch is paramount at present as the club continue to fight a winding-up order issued by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. A date of March 1 has been set for a High Court hearing that could seal their fate.
Stoke cannot take such issues into account though and come into the game stung by a sense of injustice after seeing a late goal controversially ruled out in their 1-1 draw against Manchester City in midweek. Tony Pulis' side might not be the best travellers - having won only once away from home this season - but they have only lost eight of their 25 league games and sit proudly in 11th place.
Portsmouth player in focus: John Utaka. The Nigerian has become an unwitting poster boy for Portsmouth's financial troubles but claimed this week he is earning just a third of the £80,000-per-week salary he was reported to be collecting from the club. His stock is certainly on the rise under Avram Grant as he has impressed after being used in a central striking role and has two goals and two assists in his past four appearances. After blaming former manager Harry Redknapp for playing him out of position, the onus is now on Utaka to prove his worth after producing so little since his arrival in 2007.
Stoke player in focus: Tuncay. The Turkey international has been used rather sparingly by Tony Pulis since his summer move from Middlesbrough, starting only nine games in the Premier League, but with Etherington absent, Pulis may look to Tuncay to supply some creativity from midfield.
Key battle: Aruna Dindane v Thomas Sorensen. Dindane is the most erratic of players, at times impressing with his eye for goal and at times confounding supporters with an awful miss. One thing is certain though: he will enjoy a number of chances as the Ivorian is adept at finding space in the box. If Sorensen can repel his best efforts, then Stoke will have a very good chance of winning the game.
Tactics: With Mamady Sidibe and Ricardo Fuller in tandem up front, there is nothing subtle about Stoke's approach and they will look to exploit set pieces at every given opportunity, as well as the throws of Rory Delap, should he play. Portsmouth will also deploy a front two, something of a rarity in the Premier League of late, and will rely on full-backs Nadir Belhadj and Steve Finnan to supply width with their midfield looking distinctly compact.
Quotes: Michael Brown on the importance of Saturday's game: "Stoke is a massive, massive game for us and we need to take three points. Six wins and a couple of draws would give us a chance. That would put us right in there with 36 points."
Stoke chairman Peter Coates on why his side are getting a raw deal from match officials: "Referees do tend to favour the bigger clubs. That has been my experience for a long time. The big clubs do tend to get the big decisions more than the rest of us."
In the news: Portsmouth have rarely been out of the news in recent weeks. Chairman Sulaiman Al-Fahim has denied reports that a warrant for his arrest has been issued in Dubai, while the club are continuing their battle for survival off the pitch having delivered a statement of affairs to the High Court on Wednesday as they fight a winding-up order. On Thursday, Pompey appealed to the Premier League for permission to sell their players outside of the transfer window.
Portsmouth team news: Ricardo Rocha returns from suspension to strengthen the Portsmouth defence but fellow new signing Dusko Tosic is unlikely to feature as he is short of match fitness. Hermann Hreidarsson and Steve Finnan have both been playing through the pain barrier and although the latter was unable to feature in the cup win over Southampton, he is expected to play on Saturday. Midfielder Michael Brown has been struggling with a back injury but may recover in time but Kevin-Prince Boateng, Tal Ben-Haim, Anthony Vanden Borre and Aaron Mokoena are all out.
Stoke team news: Abdoulaye Faye is suspended following his red card against Manchester City in midweek and while Stoke welcomed the news that Matthew Etherington has not suffered a serious knee injury, the winger is unlikely to feature against Portsmouth. Asmir Begovic, signed from Pompey on transfer deadline day, will likely act as deputy for established number one Thomas Sorensen while Danny Higginbotham is a doubt due to a back spasm.
Probable Portsmouth team (4-4-2): James, Finnan, Wilson, Rocha, Belhadj, Diop, O'Hara, Yebda, Basinas, Dindane, Utaka.
Probable Stoke team (4-4-2): Sorensen, Huth, Wilkinson, Shawcross, Higginbotham, Lawrence, Whelan, Whitehead, Tuncay, Sidibe, Fuller.
Soccernet prediction: Stoke are a team full of fight and endeavour but the outcome of this game will be determined by Portsmouth's reaction to recent events. A siege mentality may have developed, in which case they could snatch a draw or a win, but all logic points to a Stoke victory.