Michael O’Neill has reserved for players who are giving Stoke City everything as he sets his sights on a better second half of the season – and a place in the Championship top six.
Stoke have reached the half-way point of a unique campaign, having squeezed in 28 games by playing every weekend and mid-week outside of international breaks since the end of August.
There have been injuries to key men and in certain positions which have tested the squad but, having diced with relegation last term, they are only two points outside the play-off zone now with everything to play for.
“The players have been terrific,” said O’Neill, who is expected to unveil the signing of Rabbi Matondo on loan for the rest of the season.
“With the cup games, we’ve played 28 games. It’s an awful lot and we’ve dealt with substantial injuries in that period as well.
“The biggest thing for me is that sometimes in games last season we were totally outplayed, sometimes the game petered out and there was nothing to play for in the last 15 minutes.
“That’s not the case this season. This is a team that has been in every game and that’s what we have to maintain.
“We will continue to improve, I think, as a team as well but what we have is a real desire to maintain our position in the league and we believe we’re capable of finishing in a top six position.”
One of the major reasons for optimism that the second half of the season will be better than the first is the return of injured players.
Allen hadn’t played for nine months due to a ruptured Achilles tendon before he made a sub appearance against Coventry on Boxing Day – and he has then started the next two games, completing 90 minutes against Bournemouth last weekend.
O’Neill said: “I thought he was brilliant, again, against Bournemouth in terms of his quality in the game, his quality of play and his desire to continue to play.
“I had to continue to speak to him through the game, asking if he was ok, but he never wants to come off.
“It was a good performance. I thought Nick Powell was brilliant too. I think we’ll be stronger in the second half of the season and hopefully we can add to the squad in January.”
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Matondo, aged 20, was back in the UK yesterday to complete medical and paperwork ahead of a move to Stoke from Schalke.
He had made the switch to Germany at the start of 2019 but Schalke have been a club in crisis and are currently on their third permanent manager of a winless season.
He had previously been in the Academy at Manchester City, joining from Cardiff just after Tyrese Campbell had left for Stoke.