StokeCity’s ascent from relegation favourites, to mid-table hopefuls, to a side challenging and succeeding in Europe has been a fairytale story. They’ve slowly but surely built upon solid foundation to the extent that few would begrudge them their European adventure. However, a worrying pattern is beginning to develop – success in Europe, followed by underperformance in the Premier League. With Tony Pulis still in possession of a reasonably small squad, are Stoke in danger of losing sight on what matters most, their bread and butter, the Premier League?
Stoke qualified for the Europa League last season after managing to reach the FA Cup final where they went onto lose to Man City 1-0. With the big-money signings of Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios and Cameron Jerome, not to mention the transfer coups of Jonathan Woodgate and MatthewUpson, a lot was expected of Stoke going into this season.
Perhaps too much was expected of them and therein lies the problem. I’ve been guilty of this myself already this campaign – heaping heady expectations on a side that at present, is failing to cope with the rigours of both European and domestic football.
Take a look at their record in Europe, in a fairly difficult group including Maccabi Tel Aviv from Israel, Besiktas from Turkey and Dynamo Kiev from Ukraine – teams which prompted Pulis to ponder aloud whether any of the three difficult away trips his side had to contend with could actually be classified as in Europe. But it’s fair to say that while a record of (Pl 4, W 3, D 1) is more than respectable in the Europa League, it is without question affecting their performances back home where they’ve already lost five of their opening 11 league games.
Only on one occasion have Stoke picked up a victory in a game directly after a European tie, relatively early on in the season before fatigue had begun to set in, in the qualifiers against FC Thun whereby they beat West Brom three days later at The Hawthorns. Since then it’s been slim pickings.
After a 1-1 draw away in Kiev on September 15th, they were hammered by a deeply out of sorts Sunderland side 4-0 away from home. After a 2-1 win at home to Besiktas on September 29th, they lost 2-0 away at Swansea. Next up came a 3-0 win against Maccabi Tel Aviv at home on the 20th October followed by a 3-1 away at The Emirates to Arsenal. The latest defeat directly after a European game would have hurt the most, though. Losing 5-0 to Bolton, a direct reversal of the humiliating onslaught at Wembley last season which set in a rot of form from which Owen Coyle’s side had yet to recover from until now, came just three days after a 2-1 win away in Tel Aviv.
It’s worth noting, even with their two remaining Europa League fixtures, that every single Premier League game has and will come just three days after a European tie, but more importantly, that every single one of them sees Stoke travel to an away ground in the top flight.
Pulis rather reasonably argued: “If we are representing England, you’d expect the FA to give you the best opportunity to do well. We know the dates early, so is there a chance we can work a system where we are not playing six away games. I think there has to be a change somewhere along the line where you actually sit down before the fixtures come out. Because we played two away games after two of our qualifying games, it’s a total of eight, which is an unbelievable statistic. It is something we have to get on with, but personally I don’t think it is right. Why couldn’t we have sat down before the season started? We don’t want any favours, but we want an even run at it, which would be playing four at home and four away.”
Continued on Page TWO James McManus for FootballFanCast.com