This Saturday at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke City welcome Everton in what promises to be a hard-fought, gritty affair between two of the most difficult-to-beat teams in the English Premier League.
Tony Pulis’ men, traditionally strong on their own patch, are yet to be beaten at home this season having won four and drawn three of their fixtures there to date. The Potters have been particularly miserly when it comes to giving up goals in front of their own fans, with an impressive, league-leading figure of just two conceded in home matches.
However, having only netted seven times at The Britannia, only bottom club QPR have scored less in home fixtures this season which only provides further credence to Stoke’s reputation as the division’s pragmatists.
Pulis’ ethos of being difficult to play against, hard to beat, rugged and determined has served them extremely well during their four year stay in the top flight. This season their stubborn nature, allied to some good form has seen them creep almost undetected into the packing field lying just outside the top 4.
Stoke find themselves in 9th place, just 3 points behind Saturday’s visitors Everton, who currently occupy the much sought-after 4th spot which at the end of the campaign would secure qualification for next year’s Champions League.
Without a defeat at home in their last 14 games, Pulis should be able to pick a strong side, with very few injuries and only suspension to Ryan Shotton likely to force a change from last week’s side that battled to a goalless draw at Villa Park.
An almost certain starter will be Republic of Ireland international Jon Walters, who grew up as an Everton fan, and alongside beanpole Peter Crouch , he can prove a constant thorn in the side of David Moyes’ back four.
The visitors Everton come into this game off the back of a last-gasp victory at home to Tottenham Hotspur last week. Two injury time goals were enough to seal the points in a very even encounter they would have felt unlucky to have lost due to Clint Dempsey’s deflected goal for Spurs.
The Toffees, like their hosts, continue to pick up points even when they’re not playing well, which has been a rarity for them this season. A lightning-quick start has been followed by too many draws, and Moyes will be anxious for his side not to fall behind as they have so often in games this year.
What will please him however, is his team’s never-say-die attitude which has seen them recover to gain valuable points from losing positions on many occasions. In their current mood, Everton are unlikely to find Stoke City to be so forgiving.
The Blues’ major injury concern is the recurrence of Kevin Mirallas’ hamstring injury which led to his departure at half-time of the Tottenham game at Goodison Park. Without him they tend to lack the extra cutting edge that was so visible in their early season play.
The game is likely to hinge on Stoke’s defensive approach and method for dealing with Everton star Marouane Fellaini. They will feel more than capable of dealing with the Belgian’s aerial and physical threat, and if they can nullify him and cut the supply line from Leighton Baines, Pulis will fancy his chances of recording yet another home success.
David Moyes will insist his players don’t get involved in an attritional, combative match-up with the Potters, and impose their own style upon the game. But he will also be well aware that to beat Stoke, especially at the Britannia Stadium, you must match their physicality, desire and work rate if you are going to come away with anything.
The two draw specialists are both set up not to give an inch to the other, and with Stoke’s defence doing their best impersonation of Scrooge, Everton will find it difficult to follow up last week’s win with another pre-Christmas gift for their travelling supporters. Expect a tight and uncompromising battle with honours even come the end of 90 minutes.
Prediction: Stoke City 1-1 Everton868264