Slick Stoke City eye another upset in League Cup semi-final clash with Liverpool
‘Stokelona’ are finally getting some of the plaudits they deserve under Mark Hughes and aim to make the transformation official by securing silverware
Think of Stoke City over the last past decade, and what immediately springs to mind is a physical, powerful team, route-one football and Rory Delap’s long throw.
That’s all been consigned to the past during a season in which the transformation of Stoke’s playing approach rivals Leicester’s rise and Chelsea’s decline as the story of the 2015-16 campaign in English soccer.
After dismantling the two Manchester giants at home and Everton away in impressive Premier League victories in December, Stoke were tagged with a nickname few can ever have imagined the team getting – “Stokelona,” in reference to Barcelona.
Stoke have a long way to go to match the level of the current European champions but, in relative terms, there’s a comparison to be made.
And it makes them genuine contenders when the League Cup semi-finals begin this week with the first-leg matches: Stoke v Liverpool on Tuesday, and Everton v Manchester City on Wednesday.
The reshaping of once-unfashionable Stoke under manager Mark Hughes, who had a spell at Barcelona during his playing career, has seen former Barca players Bojan Krkic, Ibrahim Afellay and Marc Muniesa join the club since 2014, bringing a new mentality to the Britannia Stadium. The style of play has changed, too, from a long-ball game to an emphasis on passing and possession.
Then there’s the creation and blossoming of a lively front three comprising Bojan, another diminutive attacker in record-signing Xherdan Shaqiri and one-time enfant terrible Marko Arnautovic – Stoke’s answer to the Messi-Neymar-Suarez triumvirate.
The change has been startling. Man City and Man United were blown away when they visited Stoke last month, with their 2-0 losses potentially being much heavier. Stoke then went to Everton and won 4-3 in a devastating display of attacking football.
“Compliments are fine and we take them,” Hughes has said of the “Stokelona” tag, “but probably doesn’t sit too comfortably with us at the moment because we usually slip under the radar and others get the plaudits.
“If the profile of what we are doing is raised, it’s what we have to deal with.”
Stoke, who won the League Cup in 1972, are up against a Liverpool team that has won the competition a record eight times.
Liverpool’s form continues to oscillate under new manager Juergen Klopp, as shown by a 2-0 loss at West Ham that came on the back of solid victories over Leicester and Sunderland.
Klopp’s biggest concern is getting the best out of expensive preseason signing Christian Benteke, who struggles at times to fit into the high-energy style favoured by Klopp.
Injuries to Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge have allowed Benteke an extended run in the team, although Sturridge could be available against Stoke. Sturridge scored twice in Liverpool’s 6-1 demolition of Southampton in the quarter-finals.
Stoke’s American defender, Geoff Cameron, is available for the match after a successful appeal against his sending off in the Premier League game against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.