Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Stoke preview

At least this is the last one. This is our third game against Stoke in eleven days, and our fourth in eleven weeks. It's some relief that we can't play them again until August at the very earliest. Because tonight is going to be bitingly difficult. Stoke away is one of the hardest fixtures there is, and we go there this evening low on confidence and with a real whiff of discord emanating from the club.

Craig Bellamy's training, Carlos Tévez's absence, Shaun Wright-Phillips' contract, and Stephen Ireland's form have combined to create the appearance of a club which is undergoing a difficult spell. This should not be too much of a surprise: managerial changes are always difficult, and ones as controversial, unpredicted and transformative as the Hughes/Mancini changeover will inevitably lead to real discord. Remember how Hughes spent the best part of 2008/09 trying to impose himself on the squad? These things take time.

Interestingly enough, Mancini has said that he might abandon some of his new methods and go for a direct approach tonight, matching Stoke at their own game:

"We must work on the high ball, on corners and free kicks, long balls and long passes. If we want to win this game, we must play like them."

This could well mean that we're going to play 4-4-2, as we did in our game in Stoke last week. This relies on Roque Santa Cruz's fitness, but we can't do it without him. Despite his size, Emmanuel Adebayor isn't that much of a target man, whereas Santa Cruz can do that job quite admirably:

The other option is to stick with the 4-5-1 from the Liverpool game. Craig Bellamy can come in for the cup-tied Adam Johnson, while Stephen Ireland could also drop out. We can move either Vincent Kompany or Pablo Zabaleta from defence into midfield, but here I prefer Zabaleta, with Micah Richards restored at right back:

Whatever we do it's going to be tough. This is a huge game, not even for the chance of progression into an even harder away game at Stamford Bridge, but for the opportunity to dispel the clouds of doubt that have gathered around Mancini and the club over the last few weeks. A brave performance, taking it to extra time, and I'd be content. Prediction? 2-2 and a Shay Given penalty masterclass.

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