Stoke will be hoping for a swift response after their 1-0 defeat by Cardiff on Tuesday, hosting Blackburn Rovers this weekend. Bumper match preview ahead…
After wins against Barnsley and Wigan this month, new boss Michael O’Neill is aware his side must start performing against better opposition if they have any chance of avoiding a relegation battle in the New Year.
Across the country’s top four divisions, only two teams have lost more league games than the Potters’ 12: struggling League One sides MK Dons (13) and Southend (15). Individual mistakes and defensive errors have proven a regular occurrence in 2019-20.
They effortlessly switched off from a throw-in after ten minutes on Tuesday to gift Leandro Bacuna’s first goal for twelve months, further emphasising how their issues are more deep-rooted than just a managerial switch.
Post-match, O’Neill echoed the belief that chance creation and conceding needless goals has been an ever-present problem this season:
“We lacked purpose and cutting edge in the final third. I think what has epitomised this season is we went behind to a goal that was avoidable.
We didn’t set ourselves up properly from the throw-in, lost a goal as a result. Then you have to come from behind, Cardiff were able to sit in at times and hit us on the counter-attack. In many ways, we created our own problems.”
Nathan Jones was sacked on November 1 after their dismal start to 19-20 continued despite a brief revival, as a 2-0 defeat by former boss Gary Rowett proved the final straw.
He’s shown a willingness to utilise the club’s academy players, while revealing he’s keeping an eye on youngsters out on-loan elsewhere.
“I would like to get some of these younger players around the first-team, initially from a training purpose and to see whether they’re ready to play.
We’ve got some very good young players here at the club, but must make sure if they are ready and have something to add to the first-team, that we give them the opportunity to do that.”
Blackburn eyeing first away win since September
In contrast for Saturday’s visitors, a victory would be their third in quick succession – a welcome momentum boost with the festive period soon on the horizon. Aside from wins against Barnsley and Brentford over the past week, promotion-chasing Rovers have also been inconsistent this term with eight defeats already since August.
Ahead of kick-off on Saturday, they remain just six points off the top six, highlighting the unpredictability of England’s second tier. Their manager Tony Mowbray has challenged his players to continue their encouraging form, with what would be their first away win since Reading in late September.
“We’re pleased with the week so far and just have to keep the positivity going really, go into the next game in the same frame of mind. We need to be as positive as we can, believe that if we all do our jobs that we’re capable of winning anywhere.
That’s the mentality to take into Saturday – every game is difficult, every team wants to win and we’re no different.”
O’Neill will be eager to make the bet365 Stadium more of a fortress, as Stoke have lost six of nine league games there this term – conceding 16 goals in that time.
Bradley Dack’s 11th-minute strike was enough for a slender 1-0 win over Brentford on Wednesday evening. Joe Rothwell, who won Man of the Match for his display against the Bees, stressed their need for continuity ahead of their away trip.
Mowbray praised the 24-year-old playmaker, who he believes will ensure Championship opposition begin taking more notice of him, provided he reproduces more consistent displays going forward.
“He’s an exceptional player but I think the penny has dropped that he needs to work for the team. He needs to get back, run back, not just go one way.
I hope he’s started a run now where he plays every week, damages teams in this division and people become aware of Joe Rothwell.”
Club against country allegiances await for one player
It’ll be a unique experience for central midfielder Corry Evans on Saturday, as he prepares to potentially feature in a fixture between his club and national team managers.
The 29-year-old has 52 international caps for Northern Ireland, having made his debut as a teenager under Nigel Worthington. He has made 38 of those caps under Michael O’Neill following his appointment in December 2011 and is looking forward to this weekend:
“It’ll be the first time that I’ll be playing in-front of both my managers in one game, but it’ll be nice to see him… he’s started very well despite losing in midweek. I know how he wants to play and sets his team up, so it’ll be a difficult test for us.
He’s proven that he can sort teams out with us at Northern Ireland: his attention to detail means teams are always hard to play against, they look after the ball, ask questions of you and put balls into the box.”
O’Neill is expected to make a few alterations to the side who lost in south Wales on Tuesday. Lee Gregory’s dwindling form in attack suggests Wales international Sam Vokes could start ahead of the 31-year-old.
Mame Biram Diouf netted the Potters’ stoppage-time winner against Wigan last weekend but wasn’t used, while there was no place in the matchday squad for talented teenager Tyrese Campbell. He scored a brace against Portugal on international duty with England under-20s but is yet to feature under new management.
Cameron Carter-Vickers and Badou Ndiaye were solid on their first starts under the Irishman’s watch last time out, while James McClean is available for selection again after serving his one-match suspension following five bookings this term.
Peter Etebo was among the substitutes but didn’t feature against Cardiff, in his first sighting after limping off with a thigh injury vs. Sheffield Wednesday on October 22.
Club captain Ryan Shawcross continued his rehab from a broken leg, featuring in Stoke’s 4-2 Premier League 2 defeat by Newcastle on Monday. The 32-year-old is targeting a return before Christmas.
Ryan Nyambe could prove a gametime decision for Tony Mowbray, after the Rovers boss revealed caution about the fitness of their key fullback. The 21-year-old was excellent against Brentford but forced off late on with a hamstring issue they didn’t want to risk aggravating.
“Ryan’s touch-and-go, you have to be careful with hamstrings. After a torturous journey back from Africa, he had a heavy cold and missed a day of training.
He was marking one of the league’s best players on Wednesday, so the last 10 or 15 minutes was a stretch for him. We’re hoping it’s just a bit of cramp, need to manage him and see tomorrow whether he can give it another go or not.”
Should Ryan not be passed fit to feature, 30-year-old Elliott Bennett should start in his place. Their Brentford win was the first match the Jamaican hasn’t started since August.
Their impressive performance in midweek means it’s tempting to select an unchanged side against Stoke, but Mowbray hinted that he’ll probably rotate anyway as they adapt to contrasting conditions with different opponents to compete against.
“You always have decisions to make for teams. I want to play them all, you want to try and keep everyone happy, but some need to sit on the bench and some need to sit in the stands.
Sometimes if you do stick with the same team, it’s not always the right team for the opponent. We might have a few twinges, but what we do know is that we’ll go to Stoke and give it everything we’ve got.”
20-year-old striker Ben Brereton made his return after knee surgery with a brief cameo on Wednesday and he’ll be hoping for more minutes, eager to silence doubters questioning his £7m move.
Creative-minded midfielder Lewis Holtby will be aiming to start in Stoke-on-Trent, as will Bradley Johnson. The latter has remained an unused substitute in five successive league fixtures. The aforementioned Corry Evans might not start against his national team manager, evidently aware that competition for starting places is fierce.
“I came in and tried my best, it’s up to the manager to choose his team. We have a good squad, a lot of players who can come in and do a good job on Saturday, so we’ll wait and see.”
The club captain has been inconsistent this term, with a variety of solid-but-unspectacular and equally underwhelming displays in the heart of Stoke’s midfield.
No player completed more tackles than him (4) last time out, while winning five of nine duels with 88.5% pass success over the 90 minutes. He needs to do this more often, while better balancing his creative responsibilities like their 2-1 win over Swansea last month.
On that occasion, he made four tackles and interceptions while creating three key passes. As the leader of a team seemingly bereft of creative inspiration, the Wales international must be more assertive in his decision-making: like he often is under Ryan Giggs.
Blackburn’s go-to man for goals, Dack has nine goals and three assists across all competitions this term. The 25-year-old playmaker, linked with a Premier League move last term, has either been brilliant or frustrating this season. Their next top scorer? Adam Armstrong on three league goals – the 22-year-old hasn’t netted since October 5.
Rovers will be hoping he can continue his impressive form though, as he’s netted three in his last two and proven an influential figure towards recent victories. Blessed with attacking flair and goalscoring instinct, he’ll relish linking up alongside Stewart Downing and Joe Rothwell against a Stoke backline that are porous at the best of times.
This will be Premier League-based referee Kevin Friend’s second Championship fixture of the season – the last time he took charge of Stoke was in 17-18, during their 5-0 thrashing by Chelsea.
After four successive away defeats, Blackburn have only won 25% of their league points away from Ewood Park this term.
In eight meetings he’s managed against Stoke in his career to date, Tony Mowbray has lost six.
Rovers’ impressive win over Brentford might have only been their fourth clean sheet this term, but Stoke have two in comparison.