Stoke City will be hoping to build on their midweek joys in the Capital One Cup by picking up a much-needed win in the Premier League on Saturday, as the Potters entertain a high-flying Southampton side at the Britannia Stadium at 3:00pm.
Mark Hughes saw his team overcome a courageous Birmingham City 4-2 on penalties to set-up a Quarter-Final clash with Manchester United in the next stage of the cup, but Stoke haven’t won in their last six league games, drawing two and losing four, and now face a Southampton side who are riding high in fifth place after a sumptuous start to the new campaign.
The Saints, who have collected 18 points from the opening nine games, currently boast the meanest defence in the English top-flight having conceded just three goals so far, and they are currently unbeaten in their last seven fixtures in all competitions – winning five and drawing two of them.
Mauricio Pochettino will travel to Staffordshire with his impressive English core containing the likes of Nathaniel Clyne, Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse, Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez fully intact, but both Steven Davis (knock) and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo (knock) face late fitness tests for the visitors.
Glenn Whelan (hamstring) and Andy Wilkinson (knee) will both need to be assessed ahead of the game for Stoke, but Marko Arnautović successfully recovered from an illness and scored in normal time against Birmingham, thus he should be fit to start this weekend.
Head-to-Head: Last Five Meetings
Southampton 1-1 Stoke City – 19th May 2013 (Premier League)
Stoke City 3-3 Southampton – 29th December 2012 (Premier League)
Stoke City 3-2 Southampton – 12th February 2008 (Championship)
Southampton 2-3 Stoke City – 25th August 2007 (Championship)
Stoke City 2-1 Southampton – 10th March 2007 (Championship)
Hughes v Pochettino: Possible Team Line-Ups
Key Man – Steven N’Zonzi (Stoke City)
Whilst Stoke, who have conceded only four goals in their last six games at home, are flexing a new system which focuses more on ball retention and less direct play under Hughes this season, they will need Steven N’Zonzi to be composed when in control of possession this weekend, as Southampton will want to force errors through their pressing game high up the pitch.
N’Zonzi, who has completed a vastly impressive 88.9% (507) of his 570 attempted passes so far, will be asked to fluidly dictate the tempo of his side’s play by receiving the ball from his defence and keeping it ticking over crisply but quickly in order to cancel out Southampton’s intense pressure when they’re without possession.
The Frenchman, though, won’t just act as the midfield lynchpin in terms of keeping Stoke’s passing moves flowing, but will also be required to intercept, tackle and unsettle Southampton’s flurry of clever and intricate attacking players such as, Lallana and Rodriguez.
Having played in every Premier League game so far, N’Zonzi has won 77.7% (21) of his 27 attempted tackles and won 51.2% (42) of his 82 ground duels in total.
With Wilson Palacios, who won 50% (3) out of six attempted tackles and made five ball recoveries alongside N’Zonzi’s 11 against Manchester United last Saturday, potentially set to start next to him in the centre, Stoke – who have not scored more than two goals in any of their Premier League matches since they drew 3-3 with Southampton last December – will hope both players can find the right balance of expressing themselves on the pitch, but also closing off gaps and protecting their backline effectively.
Key Man – James Ward-Prowse (Southampton)
[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Pochettino” quotestyle=”style02″]James Ward-Prowse is basically an example of the player we are promoting, the player we want to have in this club. In every training session he gives 100 per cent. He always has an immediate impact in what he does and he is still a player who is growing. He is a figurehead of the sort of player we are looking for at Southampton. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]
Those were the words Southampton chief Pochettino used to describe James Ward-Prowse after the 18-year-old came off the bench against Manchester United at Old Trafford two games ago, and helped his side earn an impressive 1-1 draw.
It’s fair to say that Ward-Prowse, who was handed an England U21 call-up in August despite his tender age, has had a busy, yet incredibly enjoyable, couple of months of late. When given the chance to impress this season under his Argentine boss, Ward-Prowse has more than grasped it and has since amazed so much that he is keeping last summer’s £12m signing, Gastón Ramírez on the bench at the moment.
The youth academy graduate, who created a monstrous six chances and completed 92% (68) of his 74 passes in Southampton’s 2-0 win over Fulham last weekend, has a wonderful delivery of the ball from the right-flank and his link-up play with compatriot Clyne down that side is also flourishing the more games they start together.
Whilst the victory over Fulham at St. Mary’s was secured by two crosses into the box, Stoke lost 3-2 against Manchester United on the same day – with all three of the Red Devils’ goals coming from crosses into the box – and thus Ward-Prowse’s creative talent in that department could pay dividends on Saturday should he get the better of Erik Pieters and find team-mates arriving in danger areas.
The onus will be on Stoke to take the game to Southampton in order to end their wait for a league win, but that in itself could play into Pochettino’s hands because his side have proved against the likes of Liverpool so far this season that they can efficiently soak up pressure with both Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin sitting deep in particular.
Both sides are capable of ensuring a game remains tight and solid – with Southampton keeping five cleansheets in their last six Premier League games – and also earning a victory without an overriding amount of goals, thus a draw could be on the cards although each outfit is proficient enough to win the match at the same time.
Referee: Chris Foy