Monday, 15 February 2010

Stoke preview

After a bit of a stutter this is where it starts to get real. We've got four matches in the next eleven days: two trips to Stoke, Liverpool at home and then Stamford Bridge away. If they all go to plan we return to Stamford Bridge for an FA Cup quater-final before resuming our push for fourth from a position of real strength. But if they go wrong we'll only have fourth left to play for, and will be chasing it without any momentum.

So it's crucial to get this four game stretch off to a good start. And I don't necessarily mean a win, either. This is one of our games in hand, and it is not a surrender to acknowledge that a point won at the Britannia is a good one. It's more than we managed last season. The most important thing tomorrow is to arrest our slide into a rather ponderous, damp brand of football we've been playing recently. I don't want to see a return to 3-3s and 4-3s but we're not looking more like a side going through the motions than one fighting for big prizes on two fronts.

Unfortunately our team selection isn't going to much help here. Our two attacking talismen, Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy, are both absent, and there are doubts over our two experienced wingers (Martin Petrov and Shaun Wright-Phillips) and our best playmaker in Stephen Ireland. Much responsibility, then, should fall on the shoulders of Adam Johnson in only his second start. My guess is that he will start in a free role behind a pairing of Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz, which could threaten to make Georgios Samaras and Bernardo Corradi look like a partnership of exceptional mobility and effort. Johnson, as against Bolton, will drift onto whichever wing he smells weakness. Based on Shaun's successes on Saturday he could well succeed.

Behind Johnson I imagine Mancini will go for three defensive midfielders again. While Patrick Vieira could partner Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry, he doesn't look anywhere near full fitness to me. My guess then is Pablo Zabaleta in midfield with Micah Richards returning to right back.

It's a solid team and a physical one which might be the best way to succeed at Stoke. I'm not very confident of a win - I worry where the goals are coming from - but it's not impossible and I've just got a feeling this evening that a brave, battling performance could well give us the momentum to come through this difficult run we've got coming up. I predict a fiery score draw.

1 comment:

Johnny Crossan said...

I think Vieira will start instead of Zab, Mancini takes height very seriously