Stoke City cannot be complacent, says Michael O’Neill, as he demands a strong finish to the season regardless of whether or not that’s enough to make the play-offs.
Back-to-back defeats have left Stoke 10th and seven points off the top six with 13 games to play, starting with a televised home clash with promotion-chasing Swansea tomorrow (8.15pm).
It is 11 points and 11 places better off than this time last season but O’Neill does not want to settle for being comfortable.
He said: “I want to see a group of players that want to go into the last five or six games of the season and, even if it’s unrealistic, have something to play for.
“If we get into the last five games and need five wins to get into the top six at least you have something to play for. You can learn about your players in that side of things. I don’t want us to be a team that settles for a comfortable enough position in the league.
“In this league it’s very difficult to be comfortable at any stage to be honest. You’re always looking over your shoulder as much as you’re looking up the table. When you get on a run as we are at the minute you’re probably looking more over your shoulder.
“We have 13 games left and we have to look for improvements in the squad, in the team, add experience in terms of games. Harry Souttar, Josh Tymon, Jordan Thompson… for those players it’s their first season in the Championship so they’re adapting to that as well.
“That’s what we can use these 13 games to do; to really progress as a team and a club.”
Stoke return to the bet365 having won their last two matches on home soil, with the visit of Swansea followed by the visit of Wycombe on Saturday.
O’’Neill said: “The nature of the league and playing two at home, two away has maybe made it more difficult for us to get momentum at times. We’ve been searching for that all season and we haven’t probably got it.
“The fact that we haven’t won three games in a row as a club since 2016 is something we have to continue to strive to do. We need to build that not only with this group of players but as a club as a whole.
“When we’ve had that opportunity, for some reason, maybe we just haven’t had enough to propel you into the top six.”
Swansea are four points behind second-placed Brentford with two games in hand but lost 3-1 to Bristol City at the weekend.
“They’re a good side,” said O’Neill. “I think they’ve a good blend of youth and experience for this league. Their young players are good and the players they’ve signed are good as well.
“We beat them last season at the bet365 and I think we actually beat them at Swansea as well before I came but they deserved to win the game earlier this season against us.
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“Any team that stays in this league around the top three, top four, consistently as Swansea have done must be a good team. Brentford are very much in that mould as well. There are a lot of teams vying to finish fifth or sixth but Swansea are a bit above that.
“As a team we have to win the next game, regardless of the opposition.”