It’s safe to say the break came at a good time for Stoke. An exit at the fifth round of the FA Cup meant a two-week spell of no games for Mark Hughes’ men, giving the Welshman the perfect opportunity to take the squad on their annual warm weather training trip to Dubai.
The victory last time out at Bournemouth was much needed – but came at a cost. With Ryan Shawcross, Marc Wilson, and Geoff Cameron already out, both Marc Muniesa and Glen Johnson were forced off on the south cost, leaving Mame Diouf to play full-back and the inexperienced Dionatan Teixeira to come on at centre-half.
And, with a bit of luck, at least a couple of the above will be available for this Saturday’s clash at home to Aston Villa – one of two back to back games at the Brit in just four days.
Although many think the season is ‘over’ for The Potters, this next week or so is really important for me. If Stoke can pick up six points from the Villa and Newcastle games-– which they are more than capable of – it still leaves them on course to potentially break their record for Premier League points and league position.
Even four points from the two would be a decent return, and at least it gives you targets and something to play for over the remainder of the campaign.
They are an ideal set of fixtures to the point where if you had to pick two games you wanted to play at this moment of time then those two would be it, and it’s something Stoke need to take advantage of.
Villa are a side in turmoil, and anything less than three points against a side rock-bottom, who have only won three of their 25 league fixtures this season, would be really disappointing.
Steve McClaren’s Newcastle at least appear to be showing some fight to try and stay in the division, but it is still another good chance to secure maximum points – although we have learned this season more than ever that no game in the Premier League is easy.
Stoke’s attacking threat can give anybody a game, proven in the victories over Chelsea, Man City and Manchester United this term, but it’s keeping the ball out at the other end with the injury concerns that is the issue.
One of those who has been a threat throughout the campaign, but was missing at Bournemouth through injury, is Marko Arnautovic.
His inconsistency would tempt me to leave him on the bench on Saturday, and I think Mark Hughes will find it incredibly difficult to drop any of the front six after the way they counter attacked and took pressure off a weakened backline two weeks ago.
Hopefully, that desperate victory after three straight 3-0 defeats will inject a bit of confidence into the side that they can take into Saturday, and one feels if the Potters can start strong and grab an early goal, they could be well on their way.
If Villa were to score the first goal however, it would bring back memories of struggling to break down the likes of West Brom and Watford earlier on in the season.
Without doubt, Stoke had a tough few weeks in January and early February, but now it’s time to look forward and try and complete a memorable season with, at the very least, another top-ten finish.