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)

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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.

Report: Man United to target Rose, other full backs this summer

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Jose Mourinho has identified perhaps the most underrated position on the pitch as a place he needs to upgrade his squad this summer.

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According to a report from The Guardian, the Manchester United manager is looking to sign Tottenham wing back Danny Rose and potentially another full back in the summer transfer window. With Luke Shaw likely to leave the club, Mourinho is left with incumbents left back Ashley Young and right back Antonio Valencia, both on the wrong side of 30-years old and both converted wingers playing out-of-position.

Mourinho last December decried crosstown rivals Man City for spending more than $140 million to sign wing backs Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker last summer. Though Mendy missed most of the season with a torn ACL, Walker and fellow outside back Danilo helped give Man City’s attack another dimension out wide, as the wing backs in the 3-4-3 or Man City’s 4-1-4-1 with Fernandinho dropping back into the centerback pairing become ever more important.

Rose has had a contentious last 18-months or so at Tottenham and could be looking to leave this summer. But it will likely take a bid north of $75 million, around what it cost Man City to sign Walker last summer, to buy Rose out of his Tottenham contract.

Matteo Darmian meanwhile, another potential outside back for Man United, could also be departing the club this summer, as Man United looks to replenish its side.

Errors down, penalty kicks up after introduction of VAR in Italy

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The implementation of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in Italy has been controversial, but according to a look at the statistics, it has for the most part done its job to fix clear and obvious errors.

Italian sports paper Gazzetta Dello Sport compiled all the times VAR has been used through 346 matches, 330 in Serie A and 16 in the Coppa Italia. There were 1,736 checks (916 goals, 464 penalties and 356 red cards) with 105 corrections and just 17 errors where the referee and assistant made the wrong decision. Eight of those errors did affect the result, which is an issue that will surely be addressed by the Italian officiating organization.

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But overall, Gazzetta found that in the VAR era, referee errors only amounted to 0.98 percent during a match, as opposed to 6.03 percent in the past. In addition, fouls are down 8.8 percent, red cards are down 6.4 percent, and yellow cards are down 14.7 percent. On the flip side, penalty kicks are called 4.3 more percent of the time.

The Premier League voted recently not to add VAR to its league matches next season, while top leagues in Germany, Italy and in Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League continue to use it.

Report: New Arsenal manager will have small budget to re-shape squad

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Whoever takes the helm as Arsenal’s next manager will have to do some math gymnastics this summer to stretch every penny available.

According to a report from The Telegraph, Arsenal is giving Arsene Wenger‘s successor a little less than $70 million to work with in this summer’s transfer market, citing back-to-back transfer windows with club-record signings (Alexandre Lacazette last summer and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in January) and three raises given to players. Arsenal paid around $78 million alone to sign Aubameyang and around $65 million for Lacazette.

[READ: UCL Preview: Liverpool vs. Roma]

That means whoever comes in next to lead Arsenal will likely have to sell one or two players this summer to raise additional money for world-class signings.

For the last decade, Arsenal has been crying out for a new pair of centerbacks and a holding midfielder in the mould of Patrick Vieira. In addition, with Petr Cech getting older, the prospect of needing a new goalkeeper is also on the horizon.

Luckily for Arsenal, they seem to be just fine up front. From Aubameyang and Lacazette to Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey, the club has the talent to challenge for a title next season in that department.

A dozen different names have been bandied about as to who will be Arsenal’s next manager, with out-of-contract and former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique reportedly on the shortlist. Vieira, former Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta, Germany National Team coach Joachim Low, Juventus boss Max Allegri and Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsman have all also been linked with the job.

Tunisian player who collapsed in Spain regains consciousness

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MADRID (AP) Spanish third-division club Toledo says a Tunisian player who collapsed from heart failure during practice 10 days ago has regained consciousness.

The club says doctors removed sedative medication and Lassad Nouioui was responding well to treatment on Monday.

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They will consider removing the 32-year-old Nouioui from the intensive care unit if his condition keeps improving. Nouioui has played for a number of clubs during his 14-year professional career, notably a four-year stay at Deportivo La Coruna and a one-year spell with Celtic.

Nouioui collapsed on April 14.

The game against Real Madrid B the following day was postponed because of the problem with Nouioui.