Sunderland’s improving home form will come in for a stern test when Mark Hughes brings his Stoke City side to the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
The Potters are improving after a slow start to the season, but both teams will be understrength through injuries and Africa Cup of Nations call-ups.
Interestingly, Hughes has in recent weeks turned to experienced heads for his starting XI. With that in mind, we take a look at the two likely teams and how the match-ups are going to pan out.
Vito Mannone v Lee Grant
Jack Butland’s injury was hurting Stoke badly earlier in the season, Shay Given and Jakob Haugaard struggling to fill the void. Lee Grant has proven to be an unlikely but very capable deputy and Stoke have just shelled out to turn his loan into a permanent deal. Mannone has shown his true form in the last couple of games and so despite neither being first-choice, both sides are comfortable in this department. Little to choose between the two.
Seb Larsson v Glen Johnson
With Pienaar not quite at peak fitness, Larsson will likely continue on the left. His industry was outstanding there against Liverpool, he and Patrick van Aanholt impressively getting to grips with Mane and Clyne. Johnson is not as quick as he once was but will still force Larsson backwards. On a separate note, Larsson has to do better with set-pieces this time out. Two dependable performers likely to do the hard work for others.
Adnan Januzaj v Ryan Shawcross
Set to be a fascinating contest, the robust Shawcross likely to be very physical with the Belgian. Januzaj’s dribbling could take the centre-half out of the game with ease, so the challenge is not to be drawn into going to ground easily and being wound up by any close attention. Shawcross won’t lose the aerial duel,but Januzaj can beat him on the floor. A key, key part of the contest.
Jermain Defoe v Bruno Martins Indi
Martins Indi was an outstanding buy, the kind of well scouted addition that has helped Stoke pull away from Sunderland. He is quick and so can cope with Defoe’s movement and intelligence, but the Sunderland man has got the better of superior centre-halves. The snap and speed was missing from the way he shifts the ball onto his right foot against Burnley but a full week of rest should have seen to that. A sharp Defoe will always win out, as good as the Porto loanee is.
Fabio Borini v Erik Pieters
Tireless against Liverpool, toothless against Burnley. Borini remains a key part of Sunderland’s current set-up but could do with a goal in a big contest to lift him. Sunderland’s challenge is to be able to get him into central, advanced areas more. He is unlikely to get too much joy one-on-one with Pieters, a reliable full-back. A great chance for Borini to support Defoe and make a big contribution in the final third.
Donald Love v Joe Allen
It will be fascinating to see who Moyes picks in midfield. Love did well last weekend but Allen is a different animal entirely, smart, perceptive and superb on the ball. His presence could yet force Moyes to move Denayer back into midfield. Stoke’s best player, fans will rightly fear him settling the return clash just as he did the first.
Jack Rodwell v Charlie Adam
You can never keep Adam down, fighting his way back into the first-team picture season after season. Rodwell has improved in the last two games but needs to deliver for a full 90. Will have to be brave on the ball otherwise Stoke’s midfield will control the tempo. Adam remains underrated and Rodwell will have to go up another gear, and stay there.
Billy Jones v Marko Arnautovic
Jones will hopefully be fit to try and shackle the mercurial Austrian. Sunderland will need to attack because goals can come from anywhere across this Potters front line.
Patrick van Aanholt v Xherdan Shaqiri
With Walters a doubt and Diouf headed for Gabon, Shaqiri could be recalled. Capable of genius, he will test van Aanholt’s sometimes questionable defence, On the other side of the coin, Shaqiri will not track back and the Dutchman could have a field day. One of Sunderland’s most creative players could do serious damage, but who knows what Shaqiri could do in attack.
Jason Denayer v Ibrahim Afellay
Where Denayer plays will be a big talking point. His intelligence and reading of the game will be key to shackling the Stoke attack. Hughes has favoured bulk in recent games but may turn to the prodigious Dutchman this time out. Sunderland’s ropey defence will probably prefer avoiding a clash with Walters, if injured. Denayer will be crucial.
Peter Crouch v Papy Djilibodji
Crouch is back in Stoke’s side and back in the goals, a reminder of how far experience and intelligence can take you in football. Crouch and Stoke will know that Papy has had his ups and downs this season and will target him. How the Senegal man copes with that will be one of the absolutely defining factors in this clash.