Stoke are ninth in the Sky Bet Championship table at the time of writing, four points off the top six, having seemingly found a winning formula after a run of one win from 13 games throughout December and into January. How would you summarise the past few months?
It has been quite difficult for a number of reasons, but primarily because they’ve been hit by injuries to lots of key players. Tyrese Campbell was so good against Brentford in the reverse fixture and was ruled out for the season not long after that game, which certainly made Stoke lose their momentum. He had been in such good form and had been such a talisman, which made it a big loss. On top of that, Steven Fletcher has struggled with a knee injury, so it has been a tough couple of months where they’ve struggled for goals. They have finally got Fletcher and Nick Powell back in unison now, so there’s a bit of hope that, together, they can help the team put together their best run of form of the season, which they’ll need to do if they are to be in with a shout.
I’d heard a few people say that Stoke were building for next season having lost ground after the amount of games they drew over the last few months, but in true Championship style, they are now just outside the play-off places. Do you think they are capable of mounting a challenge?
They are capable but it would take a really good run to get there, though I’d say that the odds are probably against them at the moment. Michael O’Neill keeps hammering home – and he has done all season – the need for progress and Ryan Shawcross put it quite well when he left at the end of last week, saying that the manager had inherited such a big task, but the first part of it was to stabilise the club and you can’t go forward without stability. That’s the priority this season.
As you say, the Potters dropped off after Campbell’s injury but in the months since, they’ve been defensively sound, with seven clean sheets in the first 14 games without him. What was the key to that?
It’s down to being very disciplined and organised. They defend as a team and have some experience in good areas, including James Chester, who has been key to that. Their success in defence has been in spite of injuries to two senior goalkeepers; they lost Angus Gunn and Adam Davies around about the same time, so they recalled Joe Bursik from his loan at Doncaster and he’s delivered some exceptional performances well ahead of schedule. If they don’t keep a clean sheet, though, they tend to let in a couple of goals, which is a habit they need to sort out.
Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on this Saturday afternoon?
Nick Powell (pictured above) is the main man. He’s got five goals in his last six at the time of speaking and has been in really good form since the start of the year. He’s had a pretty good season overall, really, and if he ticks, then Stoke tend to tick, too.
How is Michael O’Neill likely to set up his side at the Brentford Community Stadium?
He has been floating between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 and there’s not too much difference between them. It’s generally a flat back four, some kind of variation of three in midfield with wingers and a sole centre-forward. He might be tempted to have an extra body in midfield away at Brentford, though.
Stoke have been something of a bogey team for Brentford recently, having triumphed in the last two meetings. What’s your score prediction for this one?
I’ll go for 0-0 and they would certainly take that. Stoke have been the Championship’s draw specialists over the winter, but a draw away at Brentford would certainly be one of the good ones.
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