Stoke Season Preview: Improving Potters can challenge top six

Mark Hughes can guide Stoke on a top six chalenge this season
Mark Hughes can guide Stoke on a top six chalenge this season

Stoke have been one of the busiest clubs in the summer transfer window but have they bought quantity rather than quality? Mike Norman doesn't think so and believes Mark Hughes' men can improve on last season's ninth-place finish...


"Stoke are moving forwards under Hughes, so the fact that they have finished ninth for the last two seasons and look to have a very talented squad going into this campaign, I rate them a shoe-in for a Top 10 Finish. Odds of 2.608/5 really appeal."

Last Season

A home loss to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season didn't bode well for Stoke, but just a fortnight later they beat Man City at the Etihad, and those two results were typical of the Potters early season 'baffling' form. Defeats to the like of Burnley, Sunderland, and Leicester were mixed in with victories over Tottenham, Arsenal, and Everton, making Mark Hughes' men the most unpredictable sides in the Premier League.

Stoke reverted to type in the second half of the season however, making the Britannia Stadium a difficult place to come for visiting teams. Hughes' men, despite the loss of the fast-adapting and very impressive Bojan to a serious knee injury, would eventually finish an impressive ninth with a final day 6-1 mauling of Liverpool arguably the highlight of their season.


Ins and Outs

Just as Bojan was starting to find his feet in the Premier League with a string of impressive performances he suffered a knee injury that would rule him out for the remainder of the season. So having him back, fully fit and fresh for this campaign is like having a new player on Stoke's books. He could be pivotal for the Potters this term.

And in even better news for Stoke and Bojan, Hughes has acquired the services of Ibrahim Afellay on a free transfer from Barcelona. The Dutch attacking midfielder/winger confesses to being a good friend of Bojan and is excited at the prospect of linking up with his former Barca teammate.

Hughes has also brought in some experience in the shape of goalkeeper Shay Given and full-back Glen Johnson, while German-born Spanish striker Joselu - a prolific goalscorer for Real Madrid's B team as a youngster - also looks a fine capture. Former Bayer Leverkusen centre-back Philipp Wollscheid, 19-year-old winger Moha El Ouriachi, and loanee midfielder Marco van Ginkel (from Chelsea) have all arrived at the Britannia making Stoke one of the most active clubs in the summer transfer window.

Leaving Stoke for £8m is goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, while midfielder Steven N'Zonzi has joined Sevilla for around £7m. Andy Wilkinson and Wilson Palacios are two of the higher profile players to be released by Stoke but the players they have brought in look excellent in comparison to those that have departed.


The Manager

There's no doubting that Hughes is a top class manager, a strict disciplinarian who sets up his teams to be physical and hard-working. His CV rather goes unnoticed despite leading Blackburn to sixth and seventh place finishes, Fulham to eighth, and Stoke to two consecutive ninth-place finishes. He is one of only a handful of British managers to have achieved multiple top-half finishes in England's top tier, and the fact that he has done this with a string of 'lesser' teams is testament to his ability.


Expectations

Following consecutive ninth-places finishes in the Premier League there's no reason why Stoke can't aim higher. They become stronger and stronger each year, and the transfer business Hughes has done in the summer really catches the eye. Bojan is a wonderful talent, and with the additions of Afellay and Van Ginkel to the Potters' midfield we can expect more goals from this side, and them to be mixing it with the big boys this season, especially at the Britannia Stadium where they will be very difficult to beat.

They're not going to break into the top four, we know that, but with Liverpool having an unimpressive season last term, Tottenham being relatively quiet so far this summer, and Southampton and Swansea being of similar quality, there's no reason why Stoke can't seriously challenge for a top six finish.


Best Bet

Stoke are moving forwards under Hughes, so the fact that they have finished ninth for the last two seasons and look to have a very talented squad going into this campaign, I rate them a shoe-in for a Top 10 Finish. Odds of 2.608/5 really appeal.


Value Bet

They obviously need a few clubs that finished above them last season to stand still, and that's assuming that Stoke will be considerably better this term, but I believe that could well be the case and the 34.033/1 on offer about the Potters finishing in the top six isn't the most outlandish wager you'll ever have. A back to lay might be the best option, but I really don't think Stoke will be too far behind sixth position come next May.


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