Premier League Preview: Stoke City - Birmingham City
Ryan Shawcross suspended as Alex McLeish looks set to drop Alexander Hleb...
By Nick Price
Defeat at Sunderland made it four on the bounce in the Premier League, leaving Pulis' side balanced precariously above the drop zone, where the Potters could fall into if they are beaten by a wide margin on Tuesday night.
But the dismal run of results does not necessarily reflect a side playing poorly. Loss at the Stadium of Light aside, Stoke have looked solid in defeat to Bolton Wanderers, Manchester United and Everton, and have seen some dubious officiating count against them in recent weeks.
The home side's last win at the Britannia was at the beginning of October when, on an Autumnal afternoon, Walters' first Premier League goal capped off a confident team display against Blackburn Rovers.
However, that result stands out for its uniqueness as it was Stoke's one and only clean sheet of the campaign thus far and the single time that the unusually porous Potters have not conceded the first goal in a game this season.
History Repeating Itself?
Blues head north on the back of a poor run of form themselves, having won just once in their last nine Premier League games – a sequence of results that sees McLeish's side just two points above their rivals on Tuesday night.
Despite not picking up a win on the road this season, Birmingham have scored six times on their travels – the exact same number of goals that the Potters have conceded at the Britannia.
And Birmingham can point to history as a precursor to success on Tuesday: last season the visitors picked up a late Christmas present in the Potteries and it is at Stoke where Blues registered their record away win in the league, by seven clear goals, in 1997.
Potters boss Tony Pulis will have to reshuffle his back four following the sending off of club captain Ryan Shawcross in Saturday's defeat at Sunderland. The dependable centre-back will likely be replaced in the middle by Robert Huth, with Andy Wilkinson slotting in at right-back in place of the versatile German.
Stoke should line up in a familiar pattern in midfield, with Pulis seemingly set on a balanced pack that sees two out-and-out wingers – Jermaine Pennant on the right, and Matthew Etherington on the left – defying the conventional wisdom that the Welsh manager is inherently cautious and prone to simply allowing his side to bypass the middle of the park.
Up top, it should be another familiar pattern with Jonathan Walters tucking in behind club record signing Kenwyne Jones, but don't be surprised if Turkish attacker Tuncay Sanli figures to provide more incision than the hard-working Irishman.
Possible starting XI: Begovic; Wilkinson, Huth, Faye, Collins; Pennant, Whitehead, Wilson, Etherington; Walters; Jones.
Blues head to the Potteries after coming from behind to snatch a draw against West Ham United, but it was not until manager Alex McLeish hauled off the disappointing Alexander Hleb for top scorer Craig Gardner that Birmingham started to cause problems.
The Belarusian has been in erratic form since making the move to the Midlands and a trip to Stoke would hardly seem the sort of fixture in which the former Arsenal and Barcelona man would start.
McLeish is likely to adopt a more direct approach after admitting to reporters at St Andrew's on Saturday that his side lack the creativity to play a patient, probing game.
Possible starting XI: Foster; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson, Ferguson, Gardner, Beausejour; Jerome, Zigic.
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Top 3 Predictions
Stoke 0-0 Birmingham City
- 41 %
Stoke 1-0 Birmingham City
- 12 %
Stoke 0-1 Birmingham City
- 10.75 %
|England - Capital One Cup(League Cup) (CCUP)||Oct 29, 2013||Birmingham City 4 - Stoke 4|
|England - Premier League (EPL)||Feb 12, 2011||Birmingham City 1 - Stoke 0|
|England - Premier League (EPL)||Nov 9, 2010||Stoke 3 - Birmingham City 2|
|England - Premier League (EPL)||Dec 28, 2009||Stoke 0 - Birmingham City 1|
|England - Premier League (EPL)||Aug 22, 2009||Birmingham City 0 - Stoke 0|
|Dec 7, 2013||Stoke 3 - Chelsea FC 2||EPL|
|Dec 4, 2013||Stoke 0 - Cardiff City 0||EPL|
|Nov 30, 2013||Everton 4 - Stoke 0||EPL|
|Nov 23, 2013||Stoke 2 - Sunderland 0||EPL|
|Nov 10, 2013||Swansea 3 - Stoke 3||EPL|
|7||Eidur Smari Gudjohnsen||Striker|
After starting the season in red hot form, the Trinidad and Tobago striker has begun to show the traits that made his departure from Sunderland something of a relief for the Mackems. Anonymous against Manchester United, sulky at Everton and indifferent in defeat on Saturday, the giant striker seems out of sorts, but can't afford to allow this slump develop into a rot.
The club record signing has been pivotal to the Potters' style of play since making his debut at Wolves on the opening day of the season: offering the strength to hold up long balls and the power to use his aerial might to great advantage when his team-mates attack down the flanks.
The 26-year-old simply has to perform on Tuesday night if his side are to avoid a fifth successive league defeat.
Like Jones, the Serbian beanpole is at his best when his team adopt the direct ball. On Saturday, the former Valencia man was every inch a waste of the enormous space that he takes up when the ball was played on the deck, but came into his element – much to the relief of colleagues, manager and fans – when the Blues launched it forward as they chased the game.
The league's tallest player set-up his side's first goal of the comeback on Saturday and should have slid home a winner with time running out.
With McLeish likely to field a team that will play to the giant striker's strengths, this should be an occasion for the 30-year-old to really make his mark on the Premier League.