What can Sunderland expect from Stoke City tomorrow?

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After last week’s drab FA Cup affair, most Sunderland fans will probably be looking forward to the return of the Premier League.

It promises to be another tense game, Sunderland knowing that these home games are essential if they are to stay in touch with the teams just above the relegation zone.

It will be interesting to see if Xherdan Shaqiri gets another go.

But what about their opponents?

It’s been a strange season so far for Stoke, widely lauded for the summer business but struggling to really light up their Premier League season.

So we caught up with Martin Spinks, the Stoke Sentinel’s reporter, to get the latest on all the important stuff.

It seems to have been a bit of an up and down season for Stoke so far. What state would you say the team are in at the moment?

A bit of disarray after their terrible Cup exit to Wolves, so anticipate plenty of changes to that starting 11.

Up and down would be a pretty accurate description, although a pattern has emerged if you consider they have taken one point from 18 against the so-called big six, but done the double over Watford and made it three out of three against the current bottom three so far.

What do you expect the Stoke team to look like on Saturday? Can we expect a start for Peter Crouch?

Yes, I think he gets another crack, even though he was as poor as anyone first half, but by and large he’s done the business since coming back into the team four games ago and certainly warrants the one-year extension announced this week.

Elsewhere, there could be a return for Glenn Whelan to stiffen things in midfield, probably alongside Joe Allen, while you’d expect Ibrahim Afellay to play after recently returning from a long-term injury, probably in the number 10 role if not alongside Whelan.

It will be interesting to see if Xherdan Shaqiri gets another go on the right flank because he’s struggled (there are other words) lately.

Who are the key players to watch out for?

Lee Grant has been superb and responsible for several league points after cushioning the blow of losing Jack Butland for the entire season.

Bruno Martins Indi has also served the team well on loan in the centre of defence, but has taken a bit of a battering of late and you hope the slog of an English season doesn’t catch up with the Dutchman.

Another to impress immensely has been Joe Allen, mainly in an attacking role behind the striker, but of late he has been deployed deeper and with less impact.

What about the goalkeeping situation? Is that a weakness for Stoke or are they coping OK without Jack Butland?

Grant has been a huge bonus. He has been a stabilising influence, not bad for what many will rudely describe as a journeyman career without any previous Premier League experience.

Butland’s story is a tragedy, in sporting terms, because the world seemed to be at his feet when he was injured playing for England in Berlin last March and we haven’t seen him in a competitive game since.

He may be fit before the end of the season, but realistically his efforts will be concentrated on a good pre-season.

Stoke have had their fair share of former Sunderland players in recent years. How is Phil Bardsley getting on and what do Stoke fans make of him?

Yes, you’ve been a rich source for Stoke and almost all were appreciated by fans here for the part they played in promotion and then staying in the top flight.

Bardsley has made less impact than most because of Glen Johnson’s arrival at the start of last season.

I thought he was nailed on to start against Wolves because he’s coming off a lay off and needed the game time, while Johnson’s record in recent times suggests he can be vulnerable to injury.

Johnson didn’t have the best of games, but it’s unlikely he’d be dropped at Sunderland, so Bardsley’s best chance is if Hughes goes to a back three again and plays him right wing back or right of a back three with Johnson as the wing back.