Stoke City seek key piece of jigsaw in season when anything could happen


This is a season that keeps finding new ways of throwing things at Stoke City.

Behind closed doors games – 26 more and counting now, injuries – too many to count now, self-isolations, fixture congestion, goalline technology, dodgy decisions, the thickest fog seen outside Victorian London and now snow.

The visit of Bournemouth might have been postponed if a crowd had been trying to navigate a white A50 but on it went, capping a first half of a campaign when Stoke have played every weekend and mid-week barring international breaks.

Has it caught up with them? They had won 60 per cent of the first 20 and were third in the as-it-stands Championship table after taking a lead in the 21st, at home against Cardiff back on December 8. Then Tyrese Campbell got injured.

Cardiff came from nowhere to turn that around and Stoke have only won one of the next seven without their 21-year-old talisman.

Steven Fletcher had added a new dimension in attack after returning from a knee injury and Stoke were getting on top in an intriguing contest before wham, an awkward fall and Fletcher was limping off with a groin problem.

Michael O’Neill said: “It’s too early to say. The fact he came off and looked in quite a lot of discomfort as he came off is not a good sign.

“I would imagine he would be out for a period of time. How long that is, obviously it’s too difficult to say at this minute in time.”

He added: “It’s a big blow. We had to shuffle the pack a little bit and obviously it’s another striker who’s going to be out. Steven has already been out this season with a knee injury. Lee Gregory is out, Tyrese is out. We just have to find a solution at the top end of the pitch.

“I thought we created some half decent chances in the first half but again we didn’t capitalise on any of those.”

Fletcher and been dovetailing up front with Nick Powell, moved further forward following the return to midfield of John Obi Mikel.

And, after Sam Surridge fudged a chance when set up at close range by Diego Rico, the pair helped Stoke build up a bit of steam, linking together and bringing in Jordan Thompson and Joe Allen from midfield.

Thompson ripped a snorter into the South Stand and Fletcher fired straight at Asmir Begovic from a tight angle before playing a one-two with Powell from a long pass from Joe Bursik, getting into the box and wellying over the bar.

Powell was leading the pressing and when he nicked the ball back in the final third, Fletcher nipped a pass to Allen to dummy his way forward and try to beat Begovic from the corner of the six-yard area.

Thompson whipped a free-kick into the side-netting too.

But Bournemouth maintained a threat with big boots from the back and Dominic Solanke got the wrong side of James Chester when he raced onto one from Lewis Cook. Bursik rushed out and thought again but had done enough to put off the forward, who lifted a shot onto the bar.

Then came Fletcher’s injury and both sides seemed drawn into a slog where they knew that one goal would probably be the winner.

There was only one decent opening between them and it came from another whack forward from Lewis Cook, releasing Junior Stanislas between Nathan Collins and Harry Souttar to slip a shot past Bursik in the 79th minute.

O’Neill said: “We’ve hit a little period when we’ve had three 0-0 draws and games when we could have taken more, then we’ve lost this game, a very, very tight game 1-0.

“I think when I look at that and I watch the game back, there will be more things that I’m pleased about. I’ll look past the result and at the fact that I think we’ve got a real developing team.

“I think when we get all our players back and at their maximum, the likes of Joe and John Obi, and put them together with some of the young players we’ve brought through, we’ve got the makings of a very good team.

“We just have to add to that and continue to improve.”

He added: “The game turned on a moment, a bit of quality from them and a little bit of inexperience from us as well in key areas. We lost the ball in a bad area and then got punished for it.

“We could have defended it better but we’ve got young players and young players are learning in a tough environment.”

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Jason Tindall, the Bournemouth manager, had been watching a different game. Perhaps, judging by his post-match interview, an entirely different channel.

“I felt it was a really, really good team away performance and a real good, physical Championship side,” he said.

“I was absolutely delighted with the performance of the team.

“Without a doubt (I thought we deserved to win with the chances we created). I thought we were by far the better side.

“I felt we were a side that created the best chances in the game and thankfully we were able to take one of those chances with what was a great goal from Junior Stanislas.”

So Bournemouth, with six clean sheets in seven, are now third and six points ahead of Stoke – but there is still half a season to play and, as we have seen already, it really does feel like anything could happen.





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