If you weren’t aware of just who was where in the Premier League table ahead of the midweek matches, it wouldn’t really surprise you to know that Stoke City are 10th.
They’ve pretty much always been there ever since their promotion from the Championship in 2008, bar a 3-1 defeat at Bolton in their first ever Premier League match which saw one attention-seeking bookmaker immediately pay out on the team to be relegated.
In the following years, such a move has been shown to be even more ridiculous than it looked back then.
Under manager Tony Pulis, Stoke have never been in relegation trouble at the end of any of their four completed Premier League seasons – instead focusing on an FA Cup final at the end of one of them and always proving to be one of the least appealing fixtures for any top flight team.
A lot of the attention is of course focused on the direct way that Stoke play, but Pulis, his players and the club’s fans won’t apologise for that. It is overblown anyway, and quite frankly why should they say sorry?
All teams should look to play to their strengths, and whilst the majority see their strengths change over time with the appointments of different managers and the signings of new players, Stoke’s style remains the same. Their strength is their strength.
They’ve been in the top flight for long enough now for people to look to combat it too, but with players such as Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross, Steven Nzonzi and recently Kenwyne Jones all impressing this season, once again they’ll be nowhere near the drop zone come the end of the campaign. Flying in their face of their reputation, tidy, technical players such as Matthew Etherington and Michael Kightly have done well too.
Pulis has got all of his men to give every ounce of sweat for the club’s cause.
It may be the status quo that Stoke are where they are in the league, but where they are is surely the best position that a club of their size, infrastructure and value can be in. If that doesn’t deserve praise then what does?
It is easy for the neutrals to love Swansea – the opponents who beat Stoke 3-1 in their last Premier League match – and indeed to appreciate the football often played by Wigan – who the Potters face at the Britannia Stadium on Tuesday night – but whilst those two have survived in the top division by doing things their own way, Stoke’s similar story has been overlooked somewhat, with the focus instead on just how they’ve gone about their stay in the division.
Maybe they are victims of their own success.
Stoke have never really been in relegation trouble and so as such it is not seen as a great achievement when they do survive in the division, as they will do this season and in all likelihood for seasons to come.
They have become one of the constants of the Premier League, with their name now known continent-wide thanks to a run in the Europa League last season, another curiously under-celebrated feat that perhaps deserved a little more attention. Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Newcastle line up in the knockout stages of the tournament next month, and you can bet that more people will be talking about them.
They and you might not like Stoke’s approach to the game but surely it should be respected?
They haven’t become top division mainstays by accident. It has taken a lot of hard work to get them where they are.
And that is right in the middle of the Premier League, where they are likely to stick around for quite a while yet.
Just where he’ll be spending the majority of his 2013 remains to be seen – although counting the extra money that Arsenal will be paying him seems to be a decent bet – but Theo Walcott (£8.5m) will end 2012 facing Newcastle at the Emirates Stadium.
He’s likely to be facing them in his favoured forward position too, as Arsene Wenger continues to bow to the demands of the England man, whose period playing as a forward is seen as crucial to his decision over whether or not he’ll sign a new contract with the Gunners.
Walcott’s relocation upfront in recent matches has seen the likes of Olivier Giroud (£7.9m) and Gervinho (£6.8m) shunted to the sidelines, and with Walcott looking to link up with Lukas Podolski (£8.2m), Santi Cazorla (£9.6m) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (£7.2m) against a Newcastle side who have lost their last four away games and are without a win on the road all season, the Gunners could well be set for a successful ending to their year, with Walcott contributing to that more than most.
Newcastle’s last defeat saw them concede four goals at Old Trafford, where Javier Hernandez (£6.9m) scored a last gasp winner the likes of which Manchester United have made their trademark over the Premier League era.
With Wayne Rooney (£12.0m) reportedly missing for the next two to three weeks with a knee problem, Hernandez is likely to be given another start upfront alongside Robin van Persie (£13.9m) when West Brom come to Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon.
This is of course another match that Sir Alex Ferguson will expect his side to win as they continue another march towards the Premier League title, and with the Scot demanding the best of his players going into the New Year then a win is surely what he’ll get – with Hernandez ready to contribute towards that.
The game of the weekend is surely Everton’s meeting with Rafael Benitez and Chelsea on Sunday afternoon, when fifth faces third at Goodison Park.
Benitez had a decent record against the Blues of Merseyside in derby games when manager of Liverpool, but this Everton side is much stronger now and will fancy their chances of upsetting the European champions and a manager who they would love to get one over.
David Moyes is still missing Marouane Fellaini (£7.5m) though, and Benitez and his side will be looking to take advantage of that, with Juan Mata (£9.6m) again ready to impress after becoming Boxing Day’s matchwinner at Norwich and Fernando Torres (£9.8m) no doubt wanting to impress against his old neighbours.
Sunday also sees a schizophrenic Liverpool go to bottom club QPR where Steven Gerrard (£9.3m) will be looking to score for the fourth successive game, whilst Gareth Bale (£9.7m) will be hoping to make it four goals in two games as he goes to Sunderland on the back of his hat-trick against Aston Villa – those of us who had him as captain are still wearing our smug smiles.
Villa haven’t been smiling following that 4-0 loss to Tottenham and the 8-0 defeat at Chelsea either side of Christmas, and if they are to bounce back at home to Wigan then Christian Benteke (£6.7m) is sure to be vital.
Stoke will be more confident going into their meeting of the red and white stripes at home to Southampton, and after his double strike helped see off Liverpool on Boxing Day Jonathan Walters (£6.4m) is sure to be a popular choice amongst Tony Pulis’s men.
Kenwyne Jones (£5.0m) could well be an astute cheap choice if you are in need of a forward, but if you’ve got much more to spend then it might be worth casting an eye towards Carrow Road as Manchester City look to bounce back from their loss to Sunderland as they go to Norwich.
Carlos Tevez (£9.5m) scored a hat-trick in this fixture last season, and he’ll be looking for a repeat performance for the champions just as their crown begins to slip.
Being told that you sometimes play like Stoke City is apparently an insult these days, but it could be Stoke players who prove the most effective in Fantasy Premier League over the next few weeks.
A relatively kind fixture list up until just before Christmas should alert Fantasy bosses to Tony Pulis’s men, who go to Norwich City this weekend in search of a first away victory of the season.
That record along with just the nine points taken from nine Premier League matches so far might not give the impression that the boys from the Britannia have been anything to write home about in this campaign, but in goalkeeper Asmir Begovic (£4.8m) and forward Peter Crouch (£6.8m) they have two of the standout value for money selections in the game this season. Defenders Ryan Shawcross (£5.0m) and Robert Huth (£5.5m) and midfielders Jonathan Walters (£6.4m) and Michael Kightly (£5.5m) also provide interesting options, but it is to Crouch that Stoke will turn to on Saturday at Carrow Road against a team who have conceded more goals than everyone but Southampton so far.
Crouch will be coming up against one of the six clubs in this season’s Premier League that he has represented before, and he looks a good bet to bite the hand that used to feed him and find the net for the first time since scoring twice at home to Swansea on Gameweek 6. Finding form could be crucial to both Pulis’s team and yours ahead of this kind run of games.
Elsewhere over a Premier League weekend which would do well to be as dramatic as the last one and the midweek League Cup ties, Manchester United could go top of the table for a few hours at least as they take on Arsenal at Old Trafford early on Saturday afternoon.
These heavyweight clashes are usually best avoided by Fantasy bosses due to their often tight and competitive nature, but Robin van Persie (£13.4m) simply can’t be ignored here as he comes up against his former employers for the first time.
Unlike Crouch he’ll only face old friends twice this season, and with the Dutchman having found the net in his last two league matches and seven times overall to jointly lead the Premier League goalscoring charts alongside Demba Ba (£8.4m, but who is a doubt for Newcastle’s trip to Anfield on Sunday), then his form is easily apparent and matches the class that he undoubtedly has.
Every league match that Van Persie has started for United has produced either a goal or an assist for the Dutchman, and with it being almost impossible to envisage that run coming to an end on Saturday, if you’ve got the cash to splash then it could well be a wise move to rely on Robin.
Tottenham players are sure to prove popular given their home match against struggling Wigan, and whilst Jan Vertonghen (£6.4m), Gareth Bale (£9.6m) and Jermain Defoe (£8.0m) are sure to be attracting plenty of attention from Fantasy bosses, it might be worth considering that Spurs face trips to Manchester City and Arsenal in their next two weeks, and so it could be better to wait to bring their boys on board.
With the basement battle between QPR and Reading sure to be a committed affair on Sunday, perhaps there is potential for points on Monday night when West Brom take on Southampton at The Hawthorns.
With the Baggies having won four of their five home matches – only losing to champions Manchester City – and considering that the Saints have lost all four of their away fixtures, then success looks likely for Steve Clarke’s men in the final game of the weekend.
Key to that success is likely to be James Morrison (£6.2m), whose two goals and three assists this season have been key to the performances of Clarke’s side, and who is likely to be heavily involved against a team who have made shipping goals an art form since their elevation to the Premier League.
West Brom don’t play like Stoke, but they could be just as effective for you this week.
SUNDAY 26TH AUGUST
|Stoke City||0 – 0||Arsenal|
|Liverpool||2 – 2||Man City|
As with last week – Bonus points are up very early… we figure the PL guys will get bored by week4 and bonus points will revert back to monday mornings.. so enjoy while it lasts!!
|Defenders Top 5 BP||£||B|
|Midfielders Top 5 BP||£||B|
|Forwards Top 5 BP||£||B|
|Swansea||3 – 0||West Ham|
|Aston Villa||1 – 3||Everton|
|Man Utd||3 – 2||Fulham|
|Norwich||1 – 1||QPR|
|Southampton||0 – 2||Wigan|
|Tottenham||1 – 1||West Brom|
|Chelsea||2 – 0||Newcastle|
|Defenders Top 5 BP||£||B|
|Midfielders Top 5 BP||£||B|
|Forwards Top 5 BP||£||B|