Stoke City are firmly in the hunt for promotion this season following two turbulent campaigns after relegation from the Premier League.
Injuries have hit their form in recent weeks but with players returning we spoke to Peter Smith, who covers Michael O’Neill’s side for the Stoke Sentinel, about what to expect from the Potters this weekend.
Canaries.co.uk: It is now eight Championship games without a victory for Stoke City. What do you put the recent poor run of form down to?
PS: Injuries haven't been kind. Tyrese Campbell was ruled out in mid-December, Steven Fletcher has been missing and Nick Powell has missed games too. Stoke have stayed hard to beat but unfortunately too easy to stop without one, two or all three of their main threats going forward. That’s on top of injuries to two senior keepers, Joe Allen, John Obi Mikel, Sam Clucas, Morgan Fox and Ryan Shawcross.
Canaries.co.uk: It has been a vast improvement on last season for the Potters though. How has Michael O’Neill managed to turn things around this season?
PS: There’s experience in key areas with James Chester, Mikel and Fletcher and there are very promising youth players coming through including Campbell, Harry Souttar, Nathan Collins and Joe Bursik. O’Neill is gradually building a squad he can trust with a foundation of organisation and discipline.
Canaries.co.uk: How much of a plus has Steven Fletcher been for the club this season?
PS: He's given Stoke an added dimension and when he's not available he's sorely missed. A mobile, strong and aggressive front man with an added bit of flair. It looks like he’s really enjoying himself, whether he’s winding up an opponent or trying a Rabona. Stoke keeping him fit and fresh for as much of the remainder of the season as possible will be key to any hopes of breaking into the top six.
Canaries.co.uk: Stoke currently sit six points outside the play-off places. What are the ambitions for this season? Is a play-off place a minimum for it to be viewed as success?
PS: Progress is the P word this season. Michael O’Neill took on a team that was bottom of the Championship; the squad was bloated, and the club had been used to losing for far too long. So, it’s a long-term project. It wouldn't exactly just be a bonus to reach the play-offs this season because it is feasible, but it’s a big leap and going in the right direction and having everyone believe that will continue to be the most important thing.
Canaries.co.uk: Stoke have made four additions in January. How impressed were you with the transfer business the club did in the window?
PS: Three young loan signings in Jack Clarke, Rabbi Matondo and Rhys Norrington-Davies, who is actually suspended for this game after a bright start. Clarke has already shown that he can add craft in the final third and we’ve seen glimpses of Matondo's jet burners. They have all added pace and freshness which Michael O’Neill says was key. It’d be great if we could see that their development was going to be for Stoke’s long-term benefit because they’re all exciting but who knows with loan deals. Alfie Doughty is rapid too but he’s on a permanent deal and we’ll have to wait until the spring until he's back from injury.
Canaries.co.uk: It was a close game at the bet365 Stadium earlier this season. What did you make of that game and what do you think Stoke City will have learnt from it?
PS: Emi Buendia couldn't stay out of the spotlight that night. He scored one and set up another before he was sent off. Stoke will know they've got to stop him but actually doing it is a different matter. It’s the same with Teemu Pukki, who was about as impressive a finisher as we’ve seen all season. For all that, it was bad luck for Stoke not to get a point in the end with a debatable late disallowed goal. They’ve been in pretty much every game so far this term and they'll not run scared of anyone.
Canaries.co.uk: Stoke City have a reputation for being quite a direct side, are we likely to see that approach from them at Carrow Road?
PS: As injuries have returned and signings have bedded in over the last few weeks, Stoke have been trying to take more control of matches. Yes, they're a strong unit but they will try to be tidy too and build from the back. Nick Powell and Fletcher have skill and power and when they’re together and in form that’s a potent cocktail.