“We go in with a game plan, we will work hard, and we firmly believe we can get something out of the game.”
That was Mark Hughes’ assistant Mark Bowen talking to BBC Radio Stoke before Chelsea dismantled a Stoke side featuring six changes from the Boxing Day draw at Huddersfield, with the vast majority of what little quality the Potters have kept wrapped up in cotton wool for New Year’s Day.
Bowen will have done well to keep a straight face while offering that soundbite. Jamie Carragher this week suggested the Premier League was in danger of becoming ‘a joke league’ because of the lack of ambition being displayed by the rest against the top six. But Stoke fans, particularly those who bothered to make the trip to Stamford Bridge before leaving after 25 minutes, most certainly were not laughing at Hughes’s selection, nor the subsequent, inevitable capitulation.
Rafa Benitez was criticised for instructing his team to sit on the edge of their own box but that, at least, was because such tactics were believed to be the best way to get something out of Man City. Unpopular though it may have been, with Gary Neville and Shay Given weighing in as well as Carragher, at least Benitez could demonstrate his reasoning. Huddersfield, West Ham and Southampton all pushed Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side close, though all at least showed a smidgen more adventure in attack. But there was enough evidence to give Benitez an alibi and he retains enough credit with the Newcastle fans to be trusted with such a decision.
— Wizards Of Drivel 🎙 (@wizardsofdrivel) December 30, 2017
Hughes cannot contest whatever charges the already irate Potters chuck in his direction. Despite Bowen’s denial, the Stoke manager accepted defeat a good while prior to being 2-0 down inside nine minutes. Long before even his side even arrived at Stamford Bridge. It was a coward’s trick.
Of course, the visit of Newcastle is a big game for both sides. Bowen said as much after claiming the Stoke management believed they had picked a team today capable of competing with the champions: “I must say, on the back of that, we hope to come in Sunday morning, 24 hours before Newcastle at home – a huge match for us – and we will have players who are fit and ready to go, even if we will again be without a number of first choice defenders.”
As you might expect of an ally of Hughes, Bowen was already offering excuses for the next game before today’s had kicked off. The insinuation here was that Stoke could not afford to gamble on picking a competitive side at Stamford Bridge today.
The risk is that Hughes has heaped even more pressure and scrutiny on himself and his team ahead of the New Year’s Day clash with the Magpies. Gone is the momentum and whatever optimism that may have been gained from a win over West Brom and their draw at Huddersfield. Back – if it ever really went away – is the scepticism and suspicion around Hughes that he claims has dogged him since he arrived at Stoke four years ago.
The Stoke coaching staff claim the players who came in – Josh Tymon, Ibrahim Afellay, Saido Berahino, Charlie Adam and Mame Diouf – have been “crying out and desperate for a start”. For three of them, it was their first of the season, and for Tymon, his maiden start in the Premier League, with the 18-year-old one side of Geoff Cameron and Kevin Wimmer, while another 18-year-old, Tom Edwards, lined up on the opposite flank. Defensive injuries dictated the make up of his back four but still, with Joe Allen, Xheridan Shaqiri, Erik Choupo-Moting and Peter Crouch all kept on the sidelines, rather than park the bus like Benitez in midweek, Hughes chucked his fringe players underneath it.
List of teams Stoke City have beaten away from home in the last TWO YEARS:
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) December 30, 2017
Looking towards Monday, Hughes said: “If we can get full points in that then it gives us two wins and a draw out of four games over the Christmas period and that would be a good return.” That statement highlights how expectation has fallen at the Bet365 Stadium. The Potters currently have their lowest points haul after 21 games since they arrived in the Premier League in 2008 and while victory on Monday might see the manager remind everyone that he was right to give Chelsea a bye today, anything but three points against Newcastle will surely see the dissenting voices Hughes scoffs at become a crescendo that the Stoke board can no longer ignore, especially with the transfer window creaking open in the background.