PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Continuing FOX Soccer's preview of the 2011-12 Barclays Premier League, Jamie Trecker looks at one of last season's FA Cup finalists - Stoke City
A glance back at the Potters' 2010-11 and you see one obvious high point - the 5-0, FA Cup semifinal thrashing of Bolton, ensuring Stoke City of its place in this years Europa League. Not bad for a team better known in the popular mind as a group of hard-tackling thugs with a throw-in specialist. Three season after being promoted, the Potters are in Europe. As a result, Tony Pulis was a consensus nominee for manager of the year, an award he may have won had a certain Manchester coach not walked away with it at the ballot box. Regardless, whereas once Pulis's single-minded pragmatism was the target or derision for his frustrated opposition, now he has the kind of result that will shut up all but the most accomplished (or most quote-worthy) adversaries.
And in reality, with players like Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington charging at opposing fullbacks, critics of Stoke are going to have to be more equivocal with their arguments. There's more than one reason the Potters are in Europe for the first time since 1974. Yes, they are muscular, but the idea that they can only score off set pieces was put to bed when folks pointed out that the majority of their goals were in fact from open play. And their strangling of the likes of Arsenal and Bolton showed that they could play tactical football with the best of them.
That said, they could use some freshening up. If they are going to push on, they'll have to do more than merely employ and a Plan B. They're going to become proficient at winning matches with more than their brawn, especially given their FA Cup exploits are likely to engender a new level of respect. Last year was something of a high point. They will not surprise anyone, anywhere this year. With that in mind, it's a big unfortunate that almost nothing has changed at the Brittania. Stoke doesnt have the cash to splash out, so they've largely avoided the transfer market, preferring to sit tight with what they have. If they are going to push on, it will be by getting more out of what they have - if that's possible.
Asmir Begovic returns between the pipes with Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross, Marc Wilson and Danny Collins in the flat back four. Danny Higginbotham will slot in if he can stay healthy as will new boy Johnathan Woodgate; Andy Wilkinson will remain a regular presence. It's a homogenous group of brawny plodders, Huth's value on the end of a dead ball distinguishing the German dangerman. The midfielders and forwards remain almost unchanged: Pennant and Etherington out wide with service from Throwball Man, Rory Delap, and the under-rated Dean Whitehead. Danny Pugh will also be in an overall uninspiring mix. Up top, Ricardo Fuller hopes to take a bow in September after recovering from his Achilles injury. Kenwyne Jones always plays, and Johnathan Walters is a regular. At each level of the pitch you have the same outlook. There's little upside, but almost no downside. This squad has mid-table written all over it. If it's a down year in the league, they could flirt with Europe, and if they get some more breaks in a Cup competition, they may again walk through the Europa League back door. A long European run could take some steam out of them, but they are sloggers, and remarkably consistent ones at that.