Swansea City-Stoke City Preview
When one thinks of Premier League clubs that perennially compete in European tournaments, Stoke City usually does not enter into that discussion, but with eight matches to go, Potters manager Mark Hughes has his team eying a potential fifth-place finish and a spot in next season's Europa League.
A victory over Swansea City on Saturday at the Britannia Stadium will send Stoke to 49 points, one shy of fifth-place West Ham United with six matches to play.
Long viewed as a club that plays "Route One" football lacking flair or style, midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri and forwards Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic have transformed the usually stoic Potters (13-7-11) into one of the most interesting clubs in the top flight.
The Potters jumped out to an early advantage in their last Premier League encounter as Jonathan Walters hit the back of the net after just 18 minutes and Joselu added a second goal six minutes after the restart as Hughes' men held on for the 2-1 win.
Stoke will have to bank on scoring first in order to win the day against Swansea. The club has taken a 1-0 lead 15 times, winning 13 and drawing the other two. Conversely, they have won just six times this season when allowing the opening salvo, losing 11 while drawing four times.
Stoke, though, will have to overcome the loss of goalkeeper Jack Butland after the 23-year-old stopper suffered a broken ankle while on international duty for England on Tuesday. He was in line to back up Manchester City's Joe Hart this summer for the European Championship.
"It has been incredible because I have had masses of support, not only from Stoke lads and supporters, but also from fans and players from other clubs too," Butland said. "I have had all of my teammates, Petr Cech (Arsenal) and Adrian (West Ham) contacting me to offer support, as have Asmir (Begovic) and Thomas Sorensen too - two of my old teammates.
"I have even had DJs, Matt Dawson from the Rugby and lots of former teammates of mine and guys I haven't played with too reaching out to me.
With Butland out of action for the remainder of the season, the battle for his place looks to be between Jakob Haugaard and veteran Irish 'keeper Shay Given, who is making a push to be Ireland's keeper in France this summer.
Despite not being able to play, Butland said he plans to lend a word of advice to Haugaard.
"I will definitely speak to him and will tell him exactly the same thing that I have been telling myself all season - just be calm and play with a smile on his face. As a goalkeeper, sometimes you can get a little carried away at times and maybe try to do too much to help the team, but ultimately as a 'keeper the game comes to you, you can't go after the game."
Swansea (9-9-13) enter the content in need of three points to further solidify their place above the relegation line. The Swans come into the match in 15th place on 36 points, 10 clear of 18th-place Sunderland.
A Federico Fernandez 53rd-minute goal was enough to give the Swans a 1-0 win over Aston Villa prior to the international break, and despite being well clear of the drop, manager Francesco Guidolin stressed the need to remain focused over the final seven matches.
"The season is not finished. It's important for us to prepare and play well in every game," said Guidolin. "Four points could be enough (for survival), but Sunderland, Newcastle and Crystal Palace have a game in hand. So there is a lot to play for in the remaining games."
The manager also knows his side will be in for a challenging afternoon against a talented Stoke team.
"Stoke are a good team and they have had an excellent season. They have very good players like (Xherdan) Shaqiri, (Ibrahim) Afellay, (Marko) Arnautovic and (Giannelli) Imbula. They play very well and this is a good season for Stoke. They can play freely now because of their position."
Stoke won 1-0 at the Liberty Stadium in October with a Krkic penalty on four minutes holding up three points. Swansea have won just one of their last five league meetings with Stoke, a 2-0 victory in May 2015, losing two and drawing the other two.