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May 13, 2011

Stoke's fire key to success

One has a transfer record of £32.5 million, the other nearly doubled theirs with an unusually generous £8 million purchase last summer. One spent £25 million on Emmanuel Adebayor only to loan him out to Real Madrid, the other spent just over half of that (£14.7 million) on constructing their stadium. One has seen their owner splash over £1 billion since arriving in 2008, the other was bought for just £1.7 million two years previous.

But, despite the current gulf in wealth between the two clubs, the one thing Manchester City and Stoke have in common is the length of time they have spent without a major trophy. City's last piece of silverware came in the 1976 League Cup final, with Stoke having enjoyed success in the same competition four years before. Now, as both teams prepare to face each other on the Wembley pitch for the chance to break their trophy drought, many pundits are opting to back prince over pauper in the battle of two very different Cities.

However, that would be to overlook the incredible job that manager Tony Pulis has done since his (initially unpopular) arrival back in the Britannia stadium hotseat. Stoke have every chance of turning the tables on the Premier League's newest force and there are a number of avenues they can pursue.

Expose City's vulnerability to aerial balls

Stoke have found favour with their unique long-throw tactic against City in recent games and will certainly look to put their opponents under strong aerial pressure again. The FA Cup last season saw the two clubs clash in the Fifth Round and the Potters emerged victorious thanks, in no small part, to Rory Delap's missiles from the touchline.

Few teams have found an answer to Delap, but City have suffered more than most with their feeble attempts at zonal marking. In the 1-1 draw in February 2010, it was Ricardo Fuller who exposed Shay Given's lack of movement to power a header home to force a replay and, in the return game (a 3-1 win for Stoke), Ryan Shawcross did the damage from a similar situation in extra-time to seal their progress. Former Manchester City manager Joe Royle declared the Blues' defending ''zonal marking at its worst'' and Roberto Mancini has yet to fathom an effective defence to the tactic, although may expect more decisive action from Joe Hart than Given.

While Fuller is injured, the in-form Kenwyne Jones is just as threatening in the air and with Shawcross, Robert Huth (or Abdoulaye Faye if the German does not recover from injury) and even giant forward John Carew to make an impact from the bench, Stoke are not short of aerial superiority.

Get the ball to the wingers

Stoke's ability to hurt City in the air also requires their wingers to raise their game. While they can win plenty of throw-ins deep in opposing territory, Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington (assuming he is passed fit) will also be asked to break with pace and provide plenty of ammunition from wide areas and dead ball situations.

The pair have been in superb form so far this season, with Pennant finally starting to show the kind of potential that once made him England's most expensive teenager back in 1999, and their impact has been two-fold. Bringing back some much-needed flair into the side with incisive dribbling and passing, Stoke's wide men also have the work-rate and passion that Pulis requires and will play an important role in dropping back and monitoring the runs of the two City full-backs, especially the dangerous Aleksandar Kolarov.

Deny City any width

If Stoke succeed in pinning the full-backs down then they will be confident of channelling the play through the centre, flooding the midfield and attacking on the counter. A lot of City's attacking play will be going through David Silva and forcing him to cut inside where there are more bodies could work well for Stoke.

Two banks of four worked well against Arsenal with Kenywyne Jones using his power to hold the ball up in a lone striking role, with Jonathan Walters dropping deeper to provide an extra body and a link between the midfield and the Trinidad international.

City's Yaya Toure may well be given the more attacking role that he performed so admirably in the 1-0 semi-final win over Manchester United and, with Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong playing behind him, Stoke must take care not to get outnumbered in central areas. Walters' role becomes even more important as the journeyman striker will be needed to stop City's central midfielders gaining an advantage.

Maintain a never-say-die attitude

Having been labelled a 'rugby team' by Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, Stoke's tough-tackling, robust approach has been questioned by many in the past. But Pulis has his side playing a more expansive game than many give them credit for and distinctions must be made between a hard work ethic and an approach that verges on the wrong side of the law.

Against Arsenal, traditionally their philosophical antithesis, Stoke conceded just seven free-kicks in the entire game (their lowest total in a Premier League home game) and, rather than bullying their opponents, simply sat back and absorbed the pressure that was in front of them. Without a creative lynchpin in the central areas, City are sometimes guilty of lacking penetration in a similar way to the Gunners and Stoke will place an emphasis on closing down their opponents and making sure there are plenty of bodies throwing themselves in front of the goal when City have the ball.

Much has been made of the expectation level placed on City to break their silverware drought after such spending, and Stoke's players will be highly motivated to ensure that their opponents leave Wembley empty handed. Sweat and thunder could be their most valuable weapon.

Stop Carlos Tevez

The Argentine's hamstring injury may take care of business without Stoke having to make much of an effort, but if he does start then Tevez will not be at his best after just twelve minutes of football since picking up the problem against Liverpool on April 11.

His impact on the City side cannot be understated as he has scored 35% of his team's goals in the 2010-11 Premier League (the highest proportion of any team) and a few early challenges will surely test his mettle for the big occasion. Perhaps even more important for the Potters is the psychological blow that keeping Tevez quiet could offer them.

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