Michael O’Neill is setting his focus firmly back on the Championship – and hoping that returning injuries and a bit of business in January give Stoke City a real challenge for at least a top six spot – after meeting their match in Spurs in the Carabao Cup.
Stoke gave Spurs a little panic in the second half at the bet365 Stadium last night, coming back from Gareth Bale’s header to level 1-1 thanks to Jordan Thompson.
But goals from Ben Davies and Harry Kane send Jose Mourinho’s side into the semi-finals and Stoke go back to league and a Boxing Day trip to Coventry City.
O’Neill said: “For 10 years this club was used to Spurs, Manchester United, Arsenal and all the top teams coming here over the period in the Premier League. We’re not there at this minute in time but we obviously harbour ambitions to get back.
“We’re trying to build a team that can go back there.
“Tonight we were missing a lot of big players: Mikel, Clucas, Joe Allen, Tyrese Campbell for example, the goalkeeping situation.
“We were far from full strength on the night. If we can get most of those players back for the second half of the season and possibly do a bit of business in the transfer window then we can make a push for a place in the top six at the very least and try to get this club back to where we believe it can be.
He added: “We’ve played some good teams. It allowed us in the early part of the season when we were all fit and healthy to make changes and we were making nine or 10 changes. We weren’t able to do that in this game.
“It gave us an opportunity to play Harry Souttar and Nathan Collins and Josh Tymon and even Tyrese in the early part of the season. They were able to force their way into the starting XI for our league games.
“It’s been very worthwhile for us. Now we can devote our attention to the league and continue to try to maintain our position and push higher.”
Stoke are waiting to assess a leg injury to Morgan Fox which forced his early withdrawal and will force O’Neill to adjust his plans for defence.
He said: “Morgan’s really I suppose our only natural left-back. Josh Tymon can do a job there and James McClean played wing back and did well there.
“We’ll just have to look at that. It’s another injury we could do without but hopefully we might have one or two back in the occasion for Saturday’s game.”
Stoke hadn’t conceded in the Carabao Cup up to this stage, including wins away at Wolves and Aston Villa, but were made to pay for slight slips in the late stages.
O’Neill said: “It’s a bit of a learning curve. We had a difficult situation with (debutant) Andy Lonergan having to come in and play. I thought he did very well tonight. And we had two young centre-backs in Nathan Collins and Harry Souttar.
“We haven’t played against that quality, let’s be honest. When you look at their attack: Bale, Kane and Dele Alli then Son coming in as well, Lamela coming in as well. We are playing against the very highest quality and we were stretched.
“But I thought we gave a decent account of ourselves, particularly in the second half.
“Lonergan did very well. I thought we put him under some unnecessary pressure in the first half with balls back to him and Spurs’ press was very good. They were aggressive in terms of how they pressed and we turned down an opportunity to play the ball forward to give it back to Andy.
“He made some good saves and he had no chance with the goals.”