Stoke travel to west London this Saturday with an important six-pointer against a struggling QPR side, who are on a five-match winless run across all competitions and find themselves just five points ahead of the Potters before kick-off.
Michael O’Neill’s men will be determined to respond after their 2-0 home defeat by playoff hopefuls Preston in midweek – where two second-half defensive mistakes were ruthlessly punished by a side unbeaten in six.
QPR kept their second clean sheet of 2020 last time out in south Wales at Swansea, but now haven’t scored for three games. They’ll be hoping to end that drought while securing all three points with a similarly astute defensive display against an unpredictable Stoke.
A gritty 1-0 win over second-placed Leeds on January 18 should have kickstarted the New Year for Mark Warburton’s side, but instead proved an exception to the rule: winning just one other league game in 11 since beating Birmingham in mid-December.
Four points above the relegation places, Stoke have improved under O’Neill’s tutelage. In 18 games to date, he’s already eclipsed Nathan Jones’ win total (6 in 38) with eight wins, making Stoke a tougher side to beat too. Nonetheless, they remain susceptible to similar mistakes that tarnished Jones’ spell and got them embroiled in a relegation battle.
Mark Warburton believes keeping his players fresh will be key to delivering strong performances between now and mid-May.
As quoted by the club’s official website, he said: “We have to see how the players are, before deciding who we pick for Saturday. Someone like Lee Wallace has been outstanding and very strong for us but it is about us using the squad.”
He reserved praise for his opposite number O’Neill, who has come in and improved Stoke but equally warned players their current league position is deceptive too.
“Michael is a very organised manager and a very well-respected manager. He has a very good squad of players and when you look around there is a lot of Premier League experience within their ranks.
We know it will be another tough challenge but week-in, week-out I say the same things about them having a good squad and possibly being in a false league position. They will come here looking to close the gap on us.”
James Chester described Stoke’s loss as an opportunity missed and O’Neill was understandably frustrated with their defeat, especially having performed well enough to win – conceding two set-pieces, the first of which was against the run of play.
“We can’t dwell on it, it’s always disappointing to lose a home game but now we go to QPR and it’ll be difficult away from home but we’ve proven we can win away games.
They’re a little bit above us in the league, not in the best run of form themselves and what I’m learning here is there’s so little between so many teams, the margins between winning and losing are so fine. It’ll be a tough game but not one we can’t win.”
QPR will again be without Charlie Owens (knee), as the midfielder has been sidelined since late August. However, French centre-back Yoann Barbet is expected to start again after missing three months’ time and returning to full fitness at the start of February.
Geoff Cameron must be eager to feature in some capacity against his former side, while creative midfielder Ilias Chair will hope his no-show in south Wales means he starts this weekend.
Tottenham’s Jack Clarke has been used sparingly since agreeing a six-month loan deal last month, so it’ll probably be a tussle between the pair for a start in the final third.
Probable XI (4-2-3-1): Kelly; Manning, Barbet, Hall, Kane; Amos, Ball; Eze, Clarke, Osayi-Samuel; Hugill
Saturday’s visitors will be without an integral figure in James McClean, after it was confirmed the versatile midfielder is sidelined for several weeks having sustained a medial ligament knee injury – one he tried to play through.
Elsewhere, youth prospect Thibaud Verlinden will miss the remainder of the campaign with an ACL injury, having limped off just five minutes after making his introduction as a substitute on Wednesday.
Sam Clucas (hip) is doubtful to start, while Tyrese Campbell could move into a wide role in McClean’s absence with Sam Vokes pushing for a recall after making cameo appearances in their last two games. Ryan Shawcross (ankle) and Stephen Ward (back) remain sidelined.
Predicted XI (4-3-3): Butland; Smith, Batth, Chester, Martins Indi; Clucas, Allen, Powell; Ince, Campbell; Vokes.
He oozes class, is blessed with excellent close-control dribbling and an underrated passing range to boot. Irrespective of QPR’s form, he won’t be in the second tier for much longer – especially with Premier League teams tracking his progress on a weekly basis.
Whether it’s his languid style or balance, the 21-year-old playmaker relishes taking players on and splitting defences apart without warning. They all try, but most opponents can’t get near him despite being aware of the persistent threat he poses.
He has ten goals and six assists this term, a deceptive stat in itself. Even if not directly involved in goals, he’s an ever-present threat in the final third and integral to the way QPR play. In 2020 (seven games), 24 successful dribbles and 15 key passes already.
Stoke better have a plan on how to stop him.
Despite a frustrating campaign that started poorly and hasn’t seen Stoke move any further away from a relegation battle than their early-season form suggested, Sam Clucas has been a dependable performer in an otherwise underwhelming team.
He’s played the most minutes (2,747), has the most goals (7) and importantly balances his responsibilities accordingly as a central midfielder encouraged to lead by example. Now 29 and hungry for a Premier League return, his stats over their last two games alone speak volumes as he looks to inspire change for the Potters:
- Eight tackles completed, four key passes and interceptions
- Three clearances, 9 of 13 ground duels won
If they are to be successful this weekend, they need him to deliver a similar display of efficiency.
QPR were 2-1 winners in the pair’s most recent meeting – August 3 last year – but hadn’t beaten Stoke (L3, D3) in their previous six fixtures before that.
McClean’s injury means Stoke will be without their second-top goalscorer this season, on six goals. Tyrese Campbell (5) and Lee Gregory (4) have flickered in-and-out of the side.
Only Barnsley (24th, 58 goals conceded) and Luton (23rd, 66 goals) hold a worse defensive record than The Rs in the Championship this term.
Oliver Langford will take charge of this clash. He has brandished 90 yellows and four red cards this term, including 10 on Tuesday during Wigan’s 2-2 draw with Middlesbrough.
Stats’ source: SofaScore, WhoScored