Stoke boss Mark Hughes is facing the prospect of heading into Saturday’s Premier League clash against champions Chelsea with only one senior centre-back available.
Hughes, who has been using a formation with three men in the centre of defence, cannot call upon the on-loan Kurt Zouma for the match at the bet365 Stadium as he is ineligible to face his parent club.
Two more of Hughes’ main centre-half options, Ryan Shawcross and Geoff Cameron, remain sidelined by back and hamstring problems respectively, and another, Kevin Wimmer, is a doubt due to a hamstring problem of his own.
Bruno Martins Indi could find himself joined in the middle by one or both of full-back pair Glen Johnson and Erik Pieters.
Also, the situation may lead to involvement for 18-year-old defender Harry Souttar.
Hughes said: “We are struggling a little bit defensively, I have to say.
“Ryan, Geoff Cameron and Kurt Zouma won’t be available and we’ve got a major doubt on Kevin Wimmer – that’s touch and go. We will have to have a look and see how he is.
“We’re a little bit stretched to say the least.”
It makes Saturday’s task look even more daunting for Stoke as they look to bounce back from two successive defeats, a 2-1 loss at Newcastle last weekend and Tuesday’s 2-0 Carabao Cup defeat at Bristol City, which Hughes labelled “our worst performance of the season”.
What appears encouraging for the Potters’ chances is that their two home league games so far this term have seen them beat Arsenal 1-0 and draw 2-2 with Manchester United – and they have been beaten only three times in Chelsea’s last eight visits in all competitions.
The Blues’ last league outing saw David Luiz become the fourth man sent off for them this season, including the Community Shield.
And Hughes has suggested that without Diego Costa, Chelsea are worse off in terms of “the dark arts”.
He said: “I think they’ve had more sent off than in the whole of last year.
“So is that an anomaly or something prevalent throughout their squad, a discipline issue?
“I think last year they were quite good at taking things up to a line and not crossing it, and maybe they have just got that balance a little bit wrong.
“I think if you look at Costa, he was brilliant at it in terms of really taking it up to the edge, then stepping back, but affecting opposition teams.
“Maybe they haven’t quite got that ability in terms of (getting) the dark arts right on spec at the moment. But I don’t see them as a team with a discipline problem.”
Hughes admits he was a fan of Costa, who is set to leave Chelsea after months of acrimony to rejoin Atletico Madrid.
“It’s a shame, a loss to the Premier League,” Hughes said.
“I used to really enjoy watching him play and how he went about his business, because he was different – he had an edge to him and the reaction of other players to him was really interesting.
“He’s a top player and the Premier League should have the top players playing in it.”