Championship Sunday focus: Stoke City

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Story so far… Change is in the air at the Britannia, and the fans are loving it. This season brings not only the club’s highest point total ever in the Premier League, but the most home points Stoke have racked up in the top division and, almost certainly, their highest ever finish.

Stoke began the season under new leadership, with Tony Pulis departing at the end of last season. At first it seemed a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Prior to January, Stoke scored 18 goals in 19 games, playing out nine matches in which the squad didn’t manage to score.

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Since the start of 2014, Stoke have managed 25 goals in 18 matches, failing to score in just five of those games, bringing their total to 43. For comparison’s sake, in their last five seasons in the Premier League, the Potters have bagged more goals than games played in just one season. They scored just 34 last year, beating out only Queens Park Rangers for lowest number of goals scored. It was dismal. It was dreary.

And it’s in the past. Hughes has had his opportunity to put his mark on the side, and his approach is perhaps best personified by last week’s 4-1 victory over Fulham. Hughes’ 4-2-3-1 was lead by Peter Odemwingie, brought in by the manager this January. Marko Arnautović, signed from Werder Bremen, added to Odemwingie’s opener, with Oussama Assaidi adding the third. All Hughes signings. All signaling the future: A Stoke City side that thrills the fans in its possibilities, while no longer prompting the neutrals to whine about having to watch the Potters.

Who do they play and where can I watch it? Stoke’s final match is at The Hawthorns. Technically West Brom aren’t yet safe, but Norwich would need to score an absurd number of goals against Arsenal to force the Baggies down. Still, this is a Midlands Derby, so don’t expect Stoke to go easy on their hosts.

You’re almost certain to appreciate Stoke’s revamp if you tune in on Sunday. Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on Oxygen or live online via NBC Sports Live Extra.

Form guide: Back in October, before the attack was really clicking, Stoke played out a goalless draw with the Albion. But after last week’s performance, such a result looks unlikely.

March 29 vs. Hull City, W 1-0
April 5 at Chelsea, L 3-0
April 12 vs. Newcastle, W 1-0
April 19 at Cardiff City, D 1-1
April 26 vs. Tottenham Hotspur, L 1-0
May 3 vs. Fulham, W 4-1

What’s at stake? Pride. The Potters are almost certain to end the day in 10th, their highest ever finish in the Premier League. But if Liverpool beat Newcastle and Stoke get all three points against West Brom, that takes them into 9th. Either way, an impressive finish indeed for Hughes’ side.

When the final whistle blows…start dreaming, Stoke fans. Hughes is in a position to keep finding bargain acquisitions that still make the side fun to watch. Bring in Assaidi on a permanent deal, make sure Marko Arnautović sticks around, and by all means, make sure you get a fair price for Asmir Begović. Then go spend it on more attackers. Who knows what might happen next season – Europe, even?

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 17 of its last 23 Premier League games
  • Alvaro Morata has 3 goals and 2 assists, all with his head
  • Stoke has lost just 1 of its past 7 home games vs defending champions

Eden Hazard is back and at full strength as Chelsea travels to the Britannia to take on Stoke City Saturday (Watch live, 10:00 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

With Hazard back and Diego Costa finally shed to Atletico Madrid, the Blues have positioned themselves to make a run at the Premier League’s top spot. Chelsea has not lost since their Opening Day misstep against Burnley, and despite firing a blank in last weekend’s 0-0 draw with the Gunners, Chelsea is still just three points off the top spot, and will look to put pressure on the Manchester clubs.

In addition to Hazard, the Blues also get Temoue Bakayoko and Pedro back in the lineup as well, although David Luiz is suspended after his late red card last weekend.

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This season has been a roller coaster ride for Stoke City, having picked up four points against Arsenal and Manchester United, but also losing to Newcastle and Everton, plus a very disappointing defeat midweek to Bristol City in the Cup. The Potters are missing a host of defenders, with Geoff Cameron and Ryan Shawcross both injured, plus Kurt Zouma ineligible to face his parent club. Kevin Wimmer is also touch and go with a hamstring injury, not expected to be available.

What they’re saying

Mark Hughes on Chelsea’s discipline issues: “Chelsea at the moment look like they are getting yellow and red cards more frequently, but that might be just an anomaly, something happening in the moment. I don’t think it is prevalent in their team. They are just strong when they need to be. It is not going to be tactic we are going to irritate them with, to step over the line, because if I’m honest I don’t think I’ll have the players to do that.”

Antonio Conte on Stoke: “The most important thing for us is to go game by game. Tomorrow it will be a really tough game. We must prepare very well this game in all the situations, tactically, physically, to be disciplined. Stoke won against Arsenal and then drew against Manchester United. It means Stoke is a really good team.”

Prediction

Stoke City has given tough teams trouble, and could again if Maxim Chupo-Moting shows up at his best again, but it’s much more likely that Chelsea will ease by in this game. The Potters have fallen off slightly this season, and while their draw against Manchester United shows they pack some punch, it won’t be enough to see off a Chelsea side buoyed by the return of Eden Hazard. Chelsea could win their opening three Premier League away matches for the first time since 2009…their third away fixture of that campaign was a 2-1 victory at Stoke, so we’ll go for the same scoreline here.

Hope Solo says she has settled grievance with US Soccer

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Hope Solo has settled a grievance with U.S. Soccer over her suspension from the women’s national team following comments she made at the Rio Olympics.

The settlement was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. The 35-year-old goalkeeper was suspended for six months and her contract with the federation was terminated after she called the Swedish team “a bunch of cowards” following the U.S. team’s quarterfinal loss.

Details about the settlement, reached last month, were not released. The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Players Association filed the grievance on Solo’s behalf.

In a statement provided Friday to The Associated Press, Solo reiterated her regret over the comments.

“As I expressed in my apology to the Swedish captain immediately following the match, I have tremendous respect for the Swedish team, and in describing the style of play, I used a choice of words that was both offensive and not at all what I had intended to convey,” she said.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“We have amicably resolved the matter and are moving forward in a positive way,” she added.

U.S. Soccer did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Women’s Soccer Team Players Association declined to comment.

Solo anchored the team in goal for the 2015 Women’s World Cup victory, allowing just three goals in seven games with five shutouts during the tournament – earning her a second straight Golden Glove Award.

For her career, Solo has made 202 total appearances with the national team, with 153 wins and an international-record 102 shutouts.

The defending champion U.S. women were ousted from the Olympics last summer when Sweden advanced 4-3 on penalty kicks following a 1-1 draw.

Solo’s “cowards” quote came immediately following the loss. Sweden went on to play in the gold-medal match against Germany.

Solo told the AP in an interview late last year that she spoke to coach Jill Ellis and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati following the loss, and felt that the issue was put to rest. After she returned to the United States, she said she was blindsided by the announcement about her suspension.

She said she believes U.S. Soccer wanted her off negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. Solo has been an outspoken advocate for equal pay and was among the players who filed a complaint against the federation with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination.

“Let’s call it what is, which is a firing,” Solo told AP then. “It was a termination of my contract effective immediately with severance. That is a firing. It wasn’t a suspension, that’s what they told the media because it looked better. But I got fired. I got fired for what they say was using the word `cowards’ but in reality they got rid of an adversary in the fight for equal pay.”

U.S. Soccer said at the time that Solo was suspended following a culmination of actions, and separately her contract was also terminated with the team.

Awful goalkeeping howler dooms Bayern to draw

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Bayern fans are already counting down the days until Manuel Neuer’s return in goal.

In his absence, Sven Ulreich has earned a pair of starts in Bundesliga play, and the most recent has not ended well. With Bayern leading Wolfsburg 2-0, Ulreich completely botched a simple save leading to Wolfsburg’s first goal, sparking a comeback from the visitors.

As Max Arnold delivered a free-kick 10 minutes after halftime, the ball sailed just over the wall and directly at Ulreich’s head. Instead of catching the attempt or using both hands to parry the shot, Ulreich raised just his right hand and failed to connect fully. The ball glanced off the side of his palm and into the back of the net to bring Wolfsburg a goal back.

The free-kick had decent pace, and it didn’t help that Sebastian Rudy made a poor attempt to block the delivery, but Ulreich won’t want to see a replay of that chance, as he made a hideous attempt to stop the shot. Wolfsburg would eventually equalize with just seven minutes remaining in the match as Daniel Didavi scored a pinpoint header in off the post. Ruddy let Didavi sneak behind him, and Paul Verhaegh delivered a fantastic long ball into the box for the 27-year-old to redirect in.

The draw means Bayern has failed to put pressure on Borussia Dortmund this weekend, leaving Die Roten level with their Dortmund rivals on 13 points with the latter still to host Borussia Monchengladbach on Saturday.

Neuer likely won’t be back until January thanks to yet another foot injury, leaving Bayern to either continue along with Ulreich and hope he improves, or look for other options either in-house or on the free agent market. Ulreich came over from Stuttgart in the summer of 2015 and has backed up Neuer since.

Former Fulham midfielder Sidwell tells another amazing Felix Magath story

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German manager Felix Magath has always been known as a mercurial individual, but as time passes from his failed stint in charge of relegated club Fulham, more and more stories continue to flow from former players that absolutely boggle the mind.

The most famous story thus far has come from former Fulham defender Brede Hangeland about Magath’s suggestion that applying cottage cheese directly to his ailing knee would help solve his injury problem. Hangeland also spoke of how Magath would make the team run in the dead of night after returning from away trips, calling him “an awful human being.”

Now, former Fulham midfielder Steve Sidwell, who spent three years at Craven Cottage, spoke up about his own experiences under Magath. Sidwell, now with Brighton but yet to make a Premier League appearance, told BBC 5 Live Sports about another time Magath was frustrated with his squad, and how he chose a different way to express that during training.

“We played poorly – I can’t remember what game it was – and we got off the bus and he said ‘right, well everyone in tomorrow at 8:00 and we’re gonna train.’ We was due a day off but we’re gonna be in for training. So everyone got in, we got outside…there was no balls coming out with us so we’re thinking ‘right, ok.’ So he’s gone ‘right, your formation yesterday, can you get in your positions?’ So we got on the pitch…goalkeeper, back four, midfield four, two strikers…stood there. And he said, ‘right, you didn’t want to run around yesterday, we’re not gonna run around today.’ And he just blew the whistle, and he said ‘everyone just stand still.’ And we had to just stand still. And it was a cold day, and there was a couple lads with gloves on, they was off straight away. There was leaves blowing across the pitch, you couldn’t make eye contact with anyone, you had to just stand there, and I think we was just there for about 40 minutes just standing there.”

In. Credible. Stuff. Sidwell also said that Magath had every player participate in a pint night before each and every away game, often in the hotel bar.

Magath was fired in September of 2014, just seven months after his hire, with Fulham having suffered an eleven-game winless streak. The Whites were eventually relegated later that season, and have not recovered since, still in the Championship looking for a return to the top flight.