Premier League 2014-15 preview: Stoke City

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A surprising revival under Mark Hughes has seen Stoke City become a club with plenty of potential.

Though they are without star players, flashy talent, or a beautiful playing style, Stoke has become a mainstay in the Premier League through hard work, physical play, and shrewd business.

A look through their roster reveals a number of players who somehow flew under the radar and landed at the Britannia, and through this conglomeration the success has slowly built. Last season marked their first-ever top half finish, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the goal this year.

Once again their strike force remains a question mark as people question the aging of Peter Crouch, but with the help of a brick wall behind them and some electric wing play, he did just enough.

Their goalkeeping situation is outstanding as well, with Asmir Begovic statistically proving himself season after season, and England youngster Jack Butland behind him should something go awry.

[RELATED: Full PL season preview]

The real work for Stoke is done on the touchline, with a number of wide men the true value of the team. With very little done in the transfer market, Hughes is relying on the chemistry built last season to carry over into this year as well.

Transfers in: Bojan Krkic (Barcelona), Steve Sidwell (Fulham), Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Mame Diouf (Hannover 96), Dionatan Teixeira (Banska Bystrica)

Transfers out: Matthew Etherington (unattached), Juan Agudelo (unattached), Michael Kightly (Burnley)

Full PL schedule | Watch Stoke City live via Live Extra | BPL on NBC schedule |

Last season: Mark Hughes was the first new manager at Stoke City since Tony Pulis began in 2006, meaning there were some growing pains. However, after failures at Manchester City, Fulham, and QPR, Hughes finally found a home to build on. He instilled a style of defensive solidarity along with a bit of attacking flow, and it earned Stoke its first top-ten finish in Stoke’s top-flight history.

With little done this offseason, supporters are hoping the team doesn’t get worse by standing still, but no doubt Hughes has finally been able to solidify his plans and make this team his own. With that, there’s no reason why the slow building process shouldn’t continue in an upward direction.

Star player: Marko Arnautovic

Hughes upon signing Arnautovic a year ago: “People will very quickly see what an outstanding talent he is. He has power and his pace, which is something I think we need in the squad.” Bang, right on the money.

The 25-year-old Austrian winger was a complete unknown when Hughes brought him to the Britannia from Werder Bremen last September. For a paltry $4.7 million, Arnautovic brought pace, electricity, and class to link between the hard-hitting Stoke midfield and its statues up front.

Where most players need some time to acclimate themselves to the Premier League style of play, Arnautovic needed none of the sort. He has the skill and pace to fly on the ball, and the strength to keep it in traffic and under challenge one-on-one. The Austrian pumped in four goals and 10 assists from the wing, and still managed to fly under the radar as no teams looked to swoop and cash in on his successful first year.

With a more free role to roam about the attacking half of the pitch as the season rolled on, expect plenty of the bold Potters’ #10 as they look for another finish in the top half of the table.

Coach’s corner: Mark Hughes

Despite his reputation built on a successful playing career, 18 months ago the managerial career of Mark Hughes looked to be just about over. He had taken four Premier League jobs, and had tanked at three of them. He built his resume after four pretty good years in charge of Blackburn, which saw Rovers finish in the top half of the table multiple times and even make it to European play.

However, it went downhill from there, and fast. He followed the money to Manchester City, but he was unable to help them reach the heights they so desired, and he was out after a year and a half. Fulham snatched him up hoping to replace Roy Hodgson, and he quit after a year due to creative differences, famously citing his “ambition” which the club apparently lacked (and later admitted he was wrong to leave). He moved to Fulham’s rivals Queens Park Rangers, where he is often credited for sewing the seeds of their relegation in the 2012/13 season and was out before December hit.

Cut to this summer, where Hughes got a chance at Stoke following Pulis’s sacking.  He released a large amount of the squad’s dead weight, and brought in some new talent, which was an immediate hit. The club plodded along last season earning some impressive wins along the way, and eeked its way to a top-ten finish. What seemed to be a career dead in the water is now revived, and should Hughes earn yet another solid finish, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some top-level interest in him once again.

PST Predicts: It hasn’t been a secret where I think this team ends up. A finish in the 8-10 area is certainly attainable, although outwardly they will likely be shooting for the Europa League hoping to build on last year’s success. However, in the Premier League, when it comes to top-ten finishes, treading water is often akin to growth, and another finish in that area of the table will certainly be welcomed. As Everton can prove, treading water in the top half of the table often leads to an eventual breakthrough, and is a much more successful model than trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

Willian proves he’s Chelsea’s x-factor against Brighton

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There’s a considerable difference when watching a Chelsea team that plays with and without one of its Brazilian influences in the attacking part of the field.

Willian — who first debuted for the Blues back in 2013 — hasn’t always managed to be a regular starter for Chelsea, whether it was Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink or current manager Antonio Conte at the helm, though.

[ SOURCES: Jack Harrison expected to join Stoke City this winter ]

The 29-year-old plays with considerable flair, something that certainly isn’t uncommon amongst many players that have grown up in Brazil.

At times Willian’s overconfidence is a significant blessing, and at others it can be considered a curse, however, the former Corinthians player’s presence is something that Chelsea needs now more than ever.

That was on display on Saturday during the side’s 4-0 win at Brighton, a match in which Chelsea dominated from start to finish with Willian on the pitch. While the performance cannot solely be attributed to the attacking midfielder’s showing, it’s easy to argue that the Blues midfielder is becoming the club’s biggest x factor — one that can determine the outcome of a match.

Just look six minutes into the match, when the Blues put together one of the best team goals you’ll see in a match this year (or any year for that matter), which of course, was started and finished by none other than Willian.

What stands out about the play isn’t the brilliant slicing shot into the near post corner by the veteran playmaker, but instead the confidence that Willian exudes and brings to a Chelsea lineup that has plenty of talent to be considered one of the best teams in England and all of Europe.

After all, Conte’s group is just a season removed from winning the Premier League and still sits inside the top three in the world’s top league.

Then, there’s the Blues’ third goal against Brighton, which was set up by a smart, and instinctive, through ball played into the path of Eden Hazard by Willian (below).

Even though Hazard ends up with a ton of time on the ball to make his next decision, which was ultimately to cut inside on his preferred right foot, the run by Willian towards the end line dragged a defender away from the Belgian international — allowing the sequence to progress.

Arguing Willian’s importance isn’t a knock on Hazard — a world-class player in his own right — or Alvaro Morata, who has had the intolerable task of replacing a key player like Diego Costa.

Instead, it simply shows that Chelsea has a plethora of talent, and that some of the club’s attacking struggles throughout the 2017/18 season can be chalked up to Willian being left out of the starting XI on a regular basis.

[ MORE: Sergio Aguero continues to display brilliance for Man City ]

The Brazilian international has scored eight goals and added seven assists this season in all competitions for the Blues, despite only starting 19 matches.

The mind of manager Conte is an ever-changing one, so maybe Willian still doesn’t get the starting nod on an every week basis, but just by watching the team’s performance at the Amex Stadium it’s quite hard to argue against the player being on the field as much as possible.

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Tottenham

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Southampton will host Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with both sides hoping to pick up three points for very different reasons.

The Saints are currently in the midst of a fierce relegation battle through 23 matches, and sit in 18th place in the Premier League, while Spurs are hoping challenge for a top-four position.

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Mauricio Pellegrino‘s Southampton could get defender Maya Yoshida back in time for Sunday’s match, however, the side will be without Charlie Austin once more, who is currently nursing a hamstring injury.

Meanwhile, a number of key figures will miss the match for Tottenham, including goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and Harry Winks. Also, Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld remain sidelined with injuries, although the latter is expected to be back soon.

What they’re saying

Mauricio Pellegrino on state of the Saints: “We are not happy with our position but in three or four weeks’ time everything can change. It’s part of our competition. I feel in our team the spirit is really good and everybody is conscious about what we need. I receive these messages from players every day, and we have to convert these feelings into stats.”

Mauricio Pochettino on potential January moves: “To be honest it will be difficult. At some point you always dream but not too much exciting [is happening]. If it happens, it happens. If not, then it doesn’t happen. We are happy with the squad.”

Prediction

Harry Kane is firing at an absurd rate recently, and Southampton’s current form is worrisome to say the least. With just four wins all season, it’s hard to imagine the Saints coming out in front in their clash. Southampton 0-3 Tottenham

La Liga: Las Palmas stuns nine-man Valencia, Atleti settles for draw

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Las Palmas 2-1 Valencia

It’s never ideal when you finish a match with nine men, and that was the case on the day for third-place Valencia. Things were going according to plan for the visitors early on at the Gran Canaria when Santi Mina scored five minutes into the match.

However, goals from Jonathan Viera (22nd minute) and Jonathan Calleri (53rd minute) brought Las Palmas in front, and they wouldn’t relinquish the advantage.

Gabriel Paulista‘s second yellow card, which set up Las Palmas’ penalty kick in the second half was the first sending off for Valencia, while Ruben Vezo joined his teammate in the locker room with three minutes remaining in regulation.

The victory moves Las Palmas into 19th place in La Liga.

Atletico Madrid 1-1 Girona

Barcelona’s lead at the top of La Liga will likely grow courtesy of Atletico’s inability to apply pressure on the Blaugrana. Antoine Griezmann’s first-half strike wasn’t enough to cushion the Atleti lead, and in turn, Girona equalized with 17 minutes left in regulation when Portu scored off of a great take out of the air.

Espanyol 0-3 Sevilla

Franco Vasquez got things started for the visiting side after just 15 minutes, and before halftime Sevilla managed to double their lead through Pablo Sarabia. For good measure, the sixth-place side added a third goal in the 90th minute as Luis Muriel finished off a pass from Sarabia.


Elsewhere in La Liga

Villareal 2-1 Levante


Sunday’s La Liga matches

Alaves vs. Leganes — 6 a.m. ET
Real Madrid vs. Deportivo La Coruna — 10:15 a.m. ET
Real Sociedad vs. Celta Vigo — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Barcelona — 2:45 p.m. ET

Blockbuster trade sends Kamara to Galaxy, Zardes to Columbus

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The MLS offseason has been in full force for some time now, and the blockbuster moves continue to take shape.

On Saturday, the Columbus Crew finalized a deal with the LA Galaxy to send striker Ola Kamara to the Western Conference side.

[ MORE: All of the picks from Friday’s MLS SuperDraft first & second rounds ]

In exchange for Kamara, the Galaxy have sent U.S. Men’s National Team attacker Gyasi Zardes and $400,000 in Targeted Allocation Money to the Crew. The amount of TAM could increase to $500,000 if Kamara scores 12 or more goals in 2018.

Since arriving on the MLS scene in 2016, the Norwegian had scored 34 regular season goals for the Crew, while adding five assists.

Meanwhile, Zardes has spent his entire professional career with the Galaxy up until this point, after having signed a Homegrown contract with the club over five years ago.

The USMNT winger has scored 34 goals in 131 regular season appearances since making his senior team debut for the Galaxy.