Michael O’Neill is ready to confront arguably his biggest selection issue ahead of Stoke City’s return to action as he conducts operations from home isolation following the shock of his positive test for coronavirus.
O’Neill has been forced to watch and direct from afar after testing positive on Tuesday and being forced away from his players for at least seven days.
But sources close to the Stoke manager say he is in good working order, despite the positive test, and is determined to remain hands on as best he can heading towards the first game back at Reading on Saturday week.
And the big decision on his starting 11 at Reading revolves around who replaces injured midfield kingpin Joe Allen.
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The Welsh international remains in cold storage until later this year, at the earliest, after suffering a ruptured achilles tendon in Stoke’s last outing before lockdown against Hull on March 7.
He was replaced that day by young sub Tashan Oakley-Boothe for his Stoke debut, but Allen’s more realistic replacements at Reading would appear to be either Jordan Cousins or Jordan Thompson.
Cousins will fancy his chances after being given the nod in Stoke’s last away game at Luton at the end of February when O’Neill opted for his more robust game in what was a crucial relegation clash on foreign territory.
But O’Neill has clearly warmed to Thompson since signing him from Blackpool at the end of the January transfer window.
O’Neill has been suitably impressed with the versatile midfielder in the Northern Ireland set up and has seen nothing since his arrival at Stoke to discourage his favourable impression.
Thompson started four of Stoke’s last five games before lockdown and demonstrated his versatility in the process.
He has played centrally, both as a ball player and ball winner, and began the game at QPR in February on the left of midfield.
O’Neill said in mid March: “What we identified in Jordan was a player who’d bring a hunger to the training and a hunger to the team as well.
“He’s a really gifted left-footed player. I think he’s learning all the time and whether he plays at the base of a midfield three, or the left of a three, he give us options.
“He’s got a good delivery from set pieces as well, so there’s a lot of positives from his performances and he’s fitted well into the club.”