Stoke City go into the international break with a spring in their step thanks to a 3-0 win at Reading. Here are the talking points from the Madejski.
How much of a statement is winning 3-0 away at the league leaders?
Well, Stoke, in eighth this morning, are four points off the top and four points off the bottom half.
If the bottom line this season is to make sure that the club is heading in the right direction again, that it’s the right side of the Financial Fair Play line and that the squad becomes more sustainable – and regardless of what happened at Reading, this box is being emphatically ticked.
Who knows what the top line could be?
It is so close that, with a good wind, any of at least a dozen teams could end up in the promotion shake-up. Stoke are hard to beat and they have a happy knack of not losing two games in a row, which stands them in good stead.
The next big thing is to develop a knack of winning two games or more in a row too.
If the injury gods are kind, it should be fun. It should be fun anyway, and it’s been a while since we’ve been able to say that.
The Steven Fletcher and Tyrese Campbell double act
It’s four goals apiece now – and five assists for Campbell – for a double act that is bringing out the best in each other.
Strong and mobile, skilful, ruthless and clinical and obviously clearly enjoying their football at the moment, this Stoke team comes alive when these two are on the pitch.
The two first-half finishes at the Madejski were a case study in what you need from strikers in away games. The keeper had made a couple of good saves at the other end so as soon as there was half a chance at the other, boom, they made Reading pay.
Suggestions for a Sheron and Sturridge SAS-style nickname for this pair have been coming in on social media, ranging from Fletchbell and Styrese to Dad and Lad. We’ll report back.
Angus Gunn worth a goal
Reading made a bright start to this game but, after almost every shot they took during their first eight games of the season went in, they were probably due a meeting with a keeper like Angus Gunn.
Gunn had been desperately unlucky to see his fine save against Tom Cleverley in mid-week count for nothing when he was subsequently barged into the net.
But here he showed his dexterity and agility a couple of times to keep out the attack while his outfield teammates gradually cranked into gear.
The second half was all about organising and doing the basics but it’s evident that there is confidence in him to do that.
A pressing issue
Changes between the Brentford, Swansea and Rotherham games gave Michael O’Neill the chance to count on the freshness of players for three games in a row heading into the international break – as well as the fact that key men were still missing.
Stoke, like a few teams in the Championship, have shouldered a blow with injuries over the past few weeks but others have stepped up, from Gunn and Danny Batth – back at his no-nonsense best here – to Jordan Thompson, quietly going about his business next to John Obi Mikel.
Then James McClean, Tommy Smith, Fletcher and Campbell summoned the energy to press a Reading defence which seemed determined not to learn lessons in messing about at the back – and had the composure to punish them.
A year up for Michael O’Neill
One year, 47 games, 23 wins, nine draws and 15 defeats; 66 goals scored and 52 conceded.
Stoke hadn’t scored three or more goals in the previous 88 games. Reading was the 10th in the last 12 months.
They’re one point outside the play-offs and into the Carabao Cup quarter-finals. Half-a-dozen Academy graduates genuinely in the first team picture and transfer business which has improved the squad.
No wonder Michael O’Neill sounds like he’s enjoying it.
He told Radio Stoke: “When you walk into a job you hope you’re going to get good support and I’ve had great support from John and Peter Coates, Tony Scholes. It’s important they understand what we’re trying to do.
“The club has had to adapt to coming down to the Championship, this is our third season; we’ve changed the profile of players we’ve brought in but ultimately we’re holding our own at a different end of the league than we were previously.
“We have to continue with that and enjoy the whole experience.
“Stoke is a great club and I’m delighted that I made the decision to come here. It wasn’t an easy decision for me but having made it, I know I’m at a club that I’ll hopefully be given a chance to keep progressing because it’s everyone’s aim to build a team that can go back to the Premier League.”