Premier League | Britannia Stadium | Sat 29 Mar | 3pm
Put away those neck braces, it's total football time. Possibly.
When a Stoke fixture doesn't arrive with a government health warning, it's indicative of a changing mood within the Premier League's self-styled "rugby team". In the past they've been easily dismissed as basic, long ball merchants. It's a criticism that's long grated the nerves of fans at the Britannia, despite their team's previous reliance on the long throw, those comical touchline towels and some pretty ugly tackling.
- Aston Villa 1-4 Stoke (Prem)
- Stoke 3-1 West Ham (Prem)
- Norwich 1-1 Stoke (Prem)
- Stoke 1-0 Arsenal (Prem)
- Man City 1-0 Stoke (Prem)
- West Ham 2-1 Hull (Prem)
- Hull 2-0 WBA (Prem)
- Hull 0-2 Man City (Prem)
- Hull 3-0 S'land (FAC)
- Hull 1-4 Newcastle (Prem)
The times are a'changing though. So much so that in recent months the brutish, rough-and-tumble tactics employed under Tony Pulis have been tempered by Mark Hughes' comparatively cultured approach; after last week's four-goal demolition of a limp Aston Villa side, there was even some frankly incredible talk of Peter Crouch's recall to the England frame (during which Sky pundit Kevin Phillips committed the cardinal sin of uttering the words "great feet" and "big man" in the same sentence.) The shorthand, then: Stoke can play along the deck these days. Under Hughes they're very much a team on the up.
But Hull can play a bit of football, too. At times. And by signing players of international pedigree - albeit players so fringe they can safely book their summer holidays by April, even during a World Cup year - Steve Bruce has brought an occasionally entertaining dash to a team that have nearly consolidated their place in the Premier League. The likes of Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore and Nikica Jelavic are hardly Galacticos, but they have added a sprinkling of swagger to Hull's mid-table positioning. There's some cause for optimism in the mid-term.
Still, the season has been long and stressful for both teams, but given that both Stoke and Hull are just shy of being mathematically assured Premier League football, it's unlikely either will recklessly abandon their defensive principles in favour of an attacking, gung-ho dispplay. The risk of dropping all three points is too great. So forget FFT's talk of total football: this game could be as cagey as they come.
Bruce will be without goalkeeper Allan McGregor who suffered the double whammy of dismissal and hospitalisation following his collision with West Ham's Mohamed Diame in midweek.
For Stoke, Oussama Assiadi is nearing full fitness following a knee ligament injury, though man-mountain centre-back Robert Huth is still sidelined. Charlie Adam is in line for a recall following a three-match ban.
Key battle: Charlie Adam vs Tom Huddlestone
Grit vs grace. It's in this midfield battle that the game might be won or lost. On his day, Huddlestone possesses the vision and soft-footed technique to pass his way into just about any side in European football. The flaws are found in his pace - or lack of. Huddlestone turns slower than a Boris Bus and is often captured jogging back to goal as opposing midfield runners burst into the Hull box. Nevertheless, he's the man most likely to break open Stoke's defence in a game that could prove tactically snug.
But, look out, Tom! Here comes Charlie Adam! - the snarling, box-to-box midfielder with a strangely schizophrenic demeanour. The big question here is which version will cross the white line during this fixture: Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde? The driving, emboldened ball-winner with the ability to make goals out of nothing (see his strike against Liverpool earlier in the season)? Or the frothing, demonic ball-breaker with an occasional tendency to stud his opponents somewhere above the shins?
We're assured he's not that type of player, of course. But previous victims of Adam's enthusiasm - Gareth Bale (twice), Scott Parker, Paulinho and Oliver Giroud (Adams' recent stamp was deemed deliberate enough to warrant a retrospective ban; this will be his first game back) - would probably disagree. Still, he might struggle to intimidate here: Huddlestone's size makes him physically tougher than some of his previous opponents.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Hull 0-0 Stoke (Prem, Dec 13)
- Stoke 2-0 Hull (Prem, Apr 10)
- Hull 2-1 Stoke (Prem, Nov 09)
- Hull 1-2 Stoke (Prem, May 09)
- Stoke 1-1 Hull (Prem, Nov 08)
Credit to Bruce. Despite this being his first season back in the Premier League, there's still everything to play for in spring.
The club are close to securing guaranteed safety and an all important FA Cup semi-final fixture is rushing up on the calendar.
Juggling his priorities will be the biggest challenge in the coming weeks. Win here, plus their game in hand, and Hull should have found enough wriggle room to shift their focus to Wembley.
For Hughes, the remainder of the season presents something of a dilemma. Once Stoke have solidified their position in the top flight in the coming weeks, the campaign could present some experimental line-ups as his coaching staff prepare for next season. The fans might not be so keen: they'll be wanting the club to build on the impressive victory over Aston Villa. Plus, there's a Crouchy For England campaign to get behind.
Facts and figures
- Stoke have won 4 and lost only 1 of their last 8 home games against bottom-half teams.
- 8 of Stoke’s 18 home games against bottom-half teams since the start of last season have had fewer than 2 goals.
- There have been fewer than 3 goals in 10 of Hull’s 15 away matches this term.
- 6 of Stoke’s 10 games against promoted teams since the start of last season have finished level while 5 of the last 7 were goalless at the break.
A risk-reward dilemma: go for broke and gamble away three points, or play safe? Our money goes on both teams settling on the latter. 1-1.