Can Stoke juggle Europa League with home front to stop Arsenal revival?
Arsenal v Stoke City, Premier League, Sunday October 23, 1.30pm
It was not that long ago that the idea of Stoke City having to delay their matches 24 hours because of European football would have been laughed out of town.
Not any more. Arsenal entertain the Potters on Sunday with Tony Pulis’s side first having to negotiate their way past Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League.
A place in Europe’s second tier competition was the reward for reaching the FA Cup final last season, even if May’s showpiece did end in a 1-0 defeat to Manchester City at Wembley.
The fixture list has not been kind to Stoke – after all six of their group matches in the Europa League they face Premier League away games, and they have not done too well so far.
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Pulis’s side were beaten 4-0 at Sunderland and 2-0 at Swansea after their last two European forays, and the Emirates, where they have been beaten on all of their visits, awaits them this time.
Unlike other teams in the Europa League such as Spurs, Fulham and Birmingham City, Pulis is tending to use largely the same squad of players for both competitions.
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It would be a little patronizing to suggest that they can’t adapt to playing in both competitions – and a 1-0 win at West Brom did follow the play-off round win over FC Thun – but clearly it is an issue for Pulis.
“We have had two slow starts this season, and they have been against Sunderland and Swansea, so we have to look at it and see what it’s about.
“The frustrating thing is after every European game, the next game in the league is away. I am not saying the FA or Premier League have done anything suspicious but it does not help.
“It’s our first taste of European football [since the 1970s] and we want to embrace it as everyone wants to relish the chance of being in a big European competition.
“If we are representing England, you’d expect the FA to give you the best opportunity to do well,” admitted Pulis. “We know the dates early, so is there a chance we can work a system where we are not playing six away games?
“Television revenue has been of enormous value to football clubs in England but I also think there should be a chance for clubs, if they are in Europe, to sit down with the Premier League, the Football Association and the television companies and arrange the fixtures in a way that will help those clubs.
“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.”
The Stoke boss has assembled a strong squad at the Britannia Stadium for his busy season, and one that was further strengthened in the summer transfer window.
Signing a trio of former England internationals in Jonathan Woodgate, Matthew Upson and Peter Crouch, as well as the likes of Wilson Palacios and Cameron Jerome suggests an upward curve for Stoke, a side that have gradually found their feet as they negotiate their fourth season in the top flight.
With eight games gone this season, the Potters sit in seventh place, despite those European distractions and despite having only scored six league goals.
Their home form – they have already beaten Liverpool and drawn with Chelsea and Manchester United at the Britannia – is again formidable, and Fulham were despatched 2-0 on Saturday with goals from Jon Walters and Rory Delap.
Away from home victory at West Brom and a draw at Norwich is no slouching – but much will depend on their recovery from their European exertions if they are to end Arsenal’s run of five consecutive home wins on Sunday.
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