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Premier League Preview: Stoke City

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Each day from now until the beginning of the Premier League season, we will preview two teams from England’s top flight. You can view them all here at PST Preview central. Don’t forget, the 2013-14 PL season begins on August 17th, and for the first-time ever you can watch every game live on NBC Sports.

Stoke City have been in the top flight five consecutive seasons now, and with their reputation for the long ball, they’ve produced some of the less exciting matches during their Premier League stay.  During those five seasons, they have failed to push into the top 10 in the table, but have also not been too involved in any serious relegation battles.  Their table finishes since being promoted last have been a consistent 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 13th.  However, new management will look to some United States internationals to help crack the top half of the table for the first time since their automatic promotion.

Transfers in: D Marc Muniesa (Barcelona B, Spain), D Erik Pieters (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands), F Juan Agudelo – January 2014 (New England Revolution)

Transfers Out: GK Carlo Nash (Norwich City, England), D Matthew Upson (Brighton Hove & Albion, England), M Rory Delap (Burton Albion, England), M Dean Whitehead (Middlesbrough, England), F Michael Owen (retired)

source: Getty ImagesKey Player: One of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League last season was Asmir Begovic (pictured), who practically kept Stoke out of the relegation battle single-handedly. Tony Pulis’s defense last season was a disaster, and Begovic was the biggest reason they gave up just 45 goals – fewer than any club finishing 8th or lower.

Stoke go as Begovic goes. The 26-year-old Bosnian was one of just four goalkeepers in the Premier League to have played every minute for the club, along with Joe Hart, Jussi Jaaskelainen, and Simon Mignolet.  By December 31 of last season, the keeper had the most clean sheets in the league with 9, which saw Stoke up to 8th position in the table.

To fix the leaks at the back, Stoke have shrewdly brought in highly-rated 21-year-old central defender Marc Muniesa from Barcelona on a free transfer, much to the surprise of many in the league.  The team also acquired young goalkeeping star Jack Butland in January after rumors flew that Begovic was on his way out to a Champions League club.  However, after Stoke warded off Arsenal and other suitors, Begovic will still be the key man for Stoke’s survival this season.

Manager: Tony Pulis stepped down after seven years in charge, an eternity in the European game these days.  Pulis was unable to get Stoke out of its stagnant bottom-half state, so by “mutual consent” the two sides went their separate ways.

Fellow Welshman, the “ambitious” Mark Hughes has taken his place, and after a tumultuous past three years, it’s probably Hughes’ last chance to prove to those in the game he can manage at a high level.  Hughes was sacked at Manchester City, but found himself amidst a successful year at Fulham.  The following summer, Hughes inexplicably left the job, proclaiming Fulham wasn’t “ambitious” enough for his liking, burning all his bridges there and creating quite a number of enemies.

He didn’t have a job in place when he left, and was passed over for jobs at Chelsea and Aston Villa.  He remained jobless for a year until being picked up by Queens Park Rangers, only to find himself sacked 6 months later with QPR bottom of the table.

Understandably, Hughes is in a position where only some serious success at Stoke could put him back on the radar of top clubs around the continent.

Outlook: Mark Hughes and the bunch have much to prove, although their findings in the transfer market (or lack thereof) don’t exactly reflect that. Hughes now has four Americans at his disposal, with Juan Agudelo joining Brek Shea, Geoff Cameron, and Maurice Edu. He needs to get moving to fill many more holes, including their difficulties last season scoring goals – they registered 34 scores, second-worst in the entire league. USMNT youngster Agudelo could help out here but that’s not until January. If they can’t find a player who wants to put the ball in the back of the net at the Britannia, it could be another long season for the Potters, and relegation could even be peeking over their shoulder come next spring.

Ranieri laughs off England speculation with quip about bookmakers

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City speaks during a Leicester City press conference ahead of their Champions League match against FC Porto at The King Power Stadium on September 26, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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When it comes to quotes, Claudio Ranieri is one of the best.

The Leicester City manager was put on the spot after Tuesday’s 1-0 UEFA Champions League win over Porto, and handled it well.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Pulisic, BVB best Madrid ]

Asked about his name appearing on betting sites as a favorite to replace disgraced England boss Sam Allardycewho left the job Tuesday — Ranieri responded with a nod to Leicester’s long odds-defying Premier League title run.

Ranieri pleased as Leicester goes 2-0 in UCL: “We played with our spirit tonight”

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrate victory after the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Leicester City FC and FC Porto at The King Power Stadium on September 27, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Leicester City is now 2-0 in the UEFA Champions League after holding out to beat Porto 1-0 on Tuesday at King Power Stadium.

Combine that with their opening match blowout at Club Brugge, and the Foxes are flying. Contrary to many projections — including mine — the UEFA Champions League slate has only served to fire up, not wear out, the Foxes (at least in Europe. More on their Premier League problems below).

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Of course we should have learned to stop predicting struggles for Leicester. Even if Tuesday’s match did see the Foxes hanging on for dear life, they did that plenty of times in last season’s run to the Premier League title.

And this year the Foxes have Islam Slimani.

The striker has been a force in each game of his young Leicester career. Slimani has terrific chemistry with fellow Algerian Riyad Mahrez, and the ex-Sporting CP man has plenty of experience in Europe.

Both his manager and captain were pleased with Slimani, and the effort.

Here’s Wes Morgan, from the BBC:

“We know we’ve got to be resilient, especially at home. We had to dig in at the end there so it’s pleasing to get three points.

“Islam Slimani is a handful and he works hard for his goals so he deserves a lot of credit. Pleased for him tonight.”

And Ranieri:

“We suffered in the last 10 minutes but it was important to win. Concentration was high, we were resilient, I’m very happy. We played with our spirit tonight.”

Leicester City could be as good as onto the knockout rounds with a win in Copenhagen on Oct. 18, and have set themselves up well for the remaining matches.

Now, it’s onto Premier League improvement. The Foxes fell to Manchester United in a blowout this weekend, and have Saints, Chelsea, Palace, and Spurs next. That’s a very challenging slate for the PL’s 12th ranked club.

Champions League wrap: Spurs, Foxes collect wins; Juve wins big in Croatia

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 27:  Heung-Min Son of Tottenham Hotspur controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between PFC CSKA Moskva and Tottenham Hotspur FC at Stadion CSKA Moskva on September 27, 2016 in Moscow, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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The UEFA Champions League’s group stage hits its second round of matches Tuesday, with two Premier League teams in play and a bevy of big names from outside England.

Leicester won again, meaning the unlikely Premier League champions could all-but-clinch a spot in the knockout rounds if they beat Copenhagen in October.

[ MORE: Dempsey out for 2016 ]

Spurs also won to help make amends for losing at home to start the group stage while — surprise, surprise — USMNT star Christian Pulisic again was the super sub for Borussia Dortmund, making a big difference in a draw with Real Madrid.

Standings at bottom.

CSKA Moscow 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur

There’s no shame in picking up a point so far from home, but a loss in the group stage opener but a little more weight on Spurs.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s side bossed the play, but found themselves closed down atop the 18 by a stingy and aggressive CSKA Moscow side.

Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min were active, and it was the South Korean who found a break through in the 71st minute.

Played through on goal, Igor Akinfeev got a piece of Son’s right-footed rip only to see the ball crawl across the line. 1-0.

Dinamo Zagreb 0-4 Juventus

Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic scored first half goals for The Old Lady, who has had little trouble establishing itself in UCL this year. Paulo Dybala made it 3-0 in the 57th minute, as we had cruise control in Croatia.

Monaco 1-1 Bayer Leverkusen

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez reportedly cost Bayer Leverkusen less than $10 million, and he’s been an absolute steal. Whatever was missing from his game at Manchester United and Real Madrid has been on full display for Bayer. Hernandez busted the match open with his sixth UCL goal in 11 appearances for the German side. Unfortunately for his side, Kamil Glik leveled things deep into stoppage time.

Leicester City 1-0 Porto

The chemistry between Algeria and now Leicester City teammates Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani is very real.

The former fed the latter for an opening goal on Tuesday in UEFA Champions League play at King Power Stadium, as the Foxes have opened up a 1-0 lead on Porto.

You can imagine the visitors aren’t too pleased with having to meet up with Slimani, who they just managed to see out of their league only to watch him arrive in their UCL group.

And how about the mad dabbing kid shown just after Slimani’s celebration? Wild nights in Leicester, as the Foxes held up to Porto’s second half pressure and went 2-for-2 in the group stage.

Borussia Dortmund 2-2 Real Madrid

Cristiano Ronaldo got on the scoresheet, though the hosts have been by far the more dangerous side. USMNT teenager Christian Pulisic is on the bench for BVB.

Thomas Tuchel’s side threatened to score through a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rocketed a shot just over the frame, and the Gabonese man made it 1-1 soon after when Keylor Navas punched Raphael Guerriero’s free kick off Raphael Varane. Aubameyang touched it over the line for an academic marker.

Varane, however, looked to have had the last laugh, poking in a go-ahead goal. That’s when USMNT star Christian Pulisic subbed on for Borussia Dortmund with 17 minutes to go and forced Navas into a save. Emre Mor then did the same.

Then, Pulisic beat his man on the right wing, sending a cross through traffic that Andre Schurrle collected and belted by Navas. 2-2.

Elsewhere

Sevilla 1-0 Lyon
Copenhagen 4-0 Club Brugge
Sporting CP 2-0 Legia Warsaw

Standings

Group E
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Monaco 2 1 1 0 3 2 1 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Tottenham Hotspur 2 1 0 1 2 2 0 0-0-1 1-0-0 3
Bayer Leverkusen 2 0 2 0 3 3 0 0-1-0 0-1-0 2
CSKA Moscow 2 0 1 1 2 3 -1 0-0-1 0-1-0 1
Group F
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Real Madrid 2 1 1 0 4 3 1 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Borussia Dortmund 2 1 1 0 8 2 6 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Sporting CP 2 1 0 1 3 2 1 1-0-0 0-0-1 3
Legia Warsaw 2 0 0 2 0 8 -8 0-0-1 0-0-1 0
Group G
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 2 2 0 0 4 0 4 1-0-0 1-0-0 6
FC Copenhagen 2 1 1 0 5 1 4 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
FC Porto 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 0-1-0 0-0-1 1
Club Brugge 2 0 0 2 0 7 -7 0-0-1 0-0-1 0
Group H
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Juventus 2 1 1 0 4 0 4 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Sevilla 2 1 1 0 1 0 1 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Lyon 2 1 0 1 3 1 2 1-0-0 0-0-1 3
Dinamo Zagreb 2 0 0 2 0 7 -7 0-0-1 0-0-1 0

WATCH: Pulisic sends cross to Schurrle to equalize with Madrid

Real Madrid's Luka Modric, left, and Dortmund's Christian Pulisic challenge for the ball during the Champions League group F soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid in Dortmund, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Borussia Dortmund substitute and USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic subbed into Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League match versus Real Madrid and made a difference.

Given 17 minutes to work, Pulisic needed about 10. The 18-year-old American sent in a cross that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang couldn’t volley but fell to another BVB player.

[ MORE: Big Sam canned ]

That was Andre Schurrle, and the ex-Wolfsburg and Chelsea man lashed a shot behind Navas to make it 2-2 at the Westfalenstadion.

Pulisic does well here, real well, and had a chance to make it 2-2 himself that was smothered by Navas.