Stoke City are preparing for a huge home game against Hull that will either leave everyone sitting that bit more comfortable or breathing into a brown paper bag.
A five-point haul from a three-game week should have been enough for Michael O’Neill to keep putting distance between his team and the bottom three but instead they’ve been dragged that little bit further into the mix.
So how should they approach this game and will they stay up? Our writers have been having their say on the main talking points.
Should James Chester or Nathan Collins start v Hull?
Martin Spinks: You have to back Chester. He deserves to be cut some slack in the short-term in the hope of him delivering in the long-term. And it was never a penalty at Luton last week. Nathan’s day will come though.
Pete Smith: This is a difficult one because one of Michael O’Neill’s biggest strengths has been keeping a consistent back four, keeping faith with players.
And if I was disappointed with Chester dangling a leg last weekend, it won’t have been a patch on what he was feeling himself.
There’s a growing consensus that Collins will be a regular starter next season and I hope so – this lad is some talent – and maybe consistency has to win out for now? Apologies but I could fall either way off this fence, to be honest.
That being said, however, that if Ryan Shawcross is fit, he is the first name on the teamsheet.
Do you give Tyrese Campbell a starting shirt?
MS: If he’s looked the business in training this week, then yes, because he would frighten Hull’s rickety defence more than Sam Vokes, though it would be harsh on Vokes after scoring last week.
PS: Yes. I wonder if Michael O’Neill is tempted to return to that experiment of using Campbell from wide in what is hopefully the final game without James McClean?
Campbell didn’t score in Stoke’s last home match – that 2-0 win over Cardiff – but he was a big factor in the team’s whole approach. He makes defenders panic because they know, like us, that he’s a goal scorer.
Make your prediction: Stoke City v Hull
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What’s the attendance going to be – and are home crowds a worry?
MS: Official: 26,338. Actual: 21,566. Yes they are a worry, but pretty much inevitable given Stoke’s circumstances. The chief point here is that those who turn up have remained remarkably supportive.
Only once, when trailing 2-1 at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day, did the atmosphere threaten to become audibly toxic as fans turned their ire on chief executive Tony Scholes, but two late goals soon changed the mood and it’s remained pretty good ever since.
PS: I think Martin’s gone high with his official prediction. Hull aren’t expected to pack that away end and the numbers in the home stands haven’t recovered with the same rapidity that O’Neill has turned around form at the bet365. I’ll go 22,107.
Hopefully I’m wrong and it’s packed to the rafters. It’s been a lot more enjoyable to watch Stoke at HQ over the last couple of months and this is a day when Stoke could really do with a 12th man.
Will Stoke stay up?
MS: Yes. Always believed it and this is no time to desert the team, but it could go to the last game at Nottingham Forest when we might need another Ade Akinbiyi moment, just hope this year’s Akinbiyi has a similar physique if the shirt comes off again.
PS: It’s a yes from me too, even if I’m a little unnerved that some neutral pundits – and bookies – aren’t even mentioning Stoke in the mixer.
The work O’Neill has done to haul the club to this stage should not be underestimated and if he just continue that steady momentum over the next few weeks, all will be well.
But it will only take a dodgy penalty, a rotten red card or something else equally unpredictable to make everyone pour with sweat again.