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Premier League 2017-18 preview – Stoke City

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Next weekend’s 2017-18 season opener will mark the beginning of Stoke City’s 10th season in the Premier League, a stretch of top-division football bested by just seven sides in England (the “big six,” plus Everton).

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No club in the PL better knows what it means to be mid-table, always and forever, for better or for worse — average finish in nine seasons: 11th; never higher than 9th, never lower than 14th.

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Best-, worst-case scenario: There’s a version of the universe in which Everton’s big-money signings require an entire season to take to the PL, Southampton lose their best player before the season is two weeks old and are slow to take to new manger Mauricio Pellegrino‘s ideas. All of which would open the door for Stoke to challenge last season’s seventh- and eighth place finishers for those very spots. There’s also a universe in which Saido Berahino is less interested this year than last, Stoke’s oft-injured defensive stars are injured again, and they finish 15th, avoiding relegation by two or three points.

Best possible XI is…


—– Butland —–

—– Zouma —– Cameron —– Indi —–

—- Diouf —- Imbula —- Fletcher —- Pieters —

—- Shaqiri —- Allen —-

—– Berahino —–


Transfers In: Kurt Zouma (loan, Chelsea), Darren Fletcher (free, West Bromwich Albion), Josh Tymon (compensation, Hull City)

Transfers Out: Marko Arnautovic ($26.3 million, West Ham United), Jonathan Walters ($4 million, Burnley), Phil Bardsley ($2.6 million, Burnley)

Last season

13th in Premier League
3rd round in EFL Cup
3rd round in FA Cup

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Star player: Xherdan Shaqiri — When speaking about “star players” for mid-table sides like Stoke, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “Which player will one of the big clubs impulse-buy for $30 million if he has a great season?” Last year, it was Marko Arnautovic (though, West Ham United aren’t quite the “big club” that immediately comes to mind). Shaqiri is merely an 18-goal/assist season away from a $40-million move to, say, Liverpool, and with a solid midfield base behind him and a handful of capable(-ish) striking options ahead of him, 2017-18 could be that season.

Coach’s corner: Here’s what you’re almost guaranteed to get with Mark Hughes as your manager, assuming he’s been afforded a balanced squad (translation: any season outside his Queens Park Rangers stint): they’re going to be extremely disciplined, organized and committed to the cause… for roughly half, maybe even two-thirds, of the season. The curse of a mid-table inertia is as follows: even when you’re punching well above your weight, you’re still miles off the promised land. Once you’ve secured your status in the league for another season, the drop-off is easy to forecast weeks in advance. You can fire the overseer — say, Tony Pulis — but you’re only ever going to end up in the exact same place.

PST predicts: Adding the experience of Fletcher and the otherworldly upside of Zouma, for a grand total of $0, is fantastic business and will do wonders to improve the spine. That said, the Potters were in the bottom third of the goal-scoring charts last season, and that was before Arnautovic left (and is yet to be replaced). Anything higher than 9th would be massively overachieving; if nothing else, the goal differential should be closer to zero this season (-15 in 2016-17).

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Saturday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.

Heynckes squashes Lewandowski rumors after Premier League rumors

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The English media – mainly the tabloids – has had a field day over the last 24 hours with rumors of a Robert Lewandowski move to the Premier League claiming, but the Bayern Munich manager is having none of it.

Jupp Heynckes told the German press during his pre-match press conference on Friday ahead of the club’s Saturday match against Hertha Berlin, “I can’t imagine there is a chance [the club executives] will sell Lewandowski.”

“Bayern is not a selling club,” Heynckes went on to proclaim. “They want to, and always will want to, keep their top players.”

The reports stated that Lewandowski was “flirting” with a move to the Premier League, and that while Manchester City and Chelsea were the more logical destination, Liverpool was actually the preferred landing spot as the Polish international was open to a reunification with former boss Jurgen Klopp, whom he worked with at Borussia Dortmund before his switch to Allianz Arena. Lewandowski’s contract at Bayern Munich currently runs through 2021, leaving the player with little say over his future.

While the rumors seem like a long shot, what does make sense is that, at 29 years old, Lewandowski doesn’t a ton of time left to convince a Premier League club he’s worth a heavy investment for the next couple of years. Many top teams – most notably Arsenal – are hesitant to sign players over 30 years old, and would be even less inclined to pay a hefty transfer fee for a player without a long future ahead of them. Manchester United just paid a cut-rate price for Alexis Sanchez, and while that was largely due to Arsenal’s position of weakness regarding the expiry of Sanchez’s contract, Sanchez’s age also partially contributed to that knocked down transfer rate.

Nonetheless, Bayern’s sale history is minimal, having only offloaded surplus players, such as defender Medhi Benatia this past summer, Mario Gotze back to Borussia Dortmund the summer before, and Xherdan Shaqiri to Stoke City in 2015.

Recently retired Ryan Mason receives standing ovation at Hull match

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Midfielder Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after suffering a fractured skull over a year ago, received a warm ovation at KCOM Stadium before Hull City’s match on Friday against Sheffield United.

Mason, just 26 years old, announced his retirement last week on the advice of medical professionals after over a year of rehabilitation from his injury in an attempt to return to playing. The Tottenham youth product was injured in an aerial clash with Chelsea defender Gary Cahill in January of 2017, and did not return to action.

“Ryan has sought the guidance of numerous world-renowned neurologists and neuro surgeons who have all advised that a return to competitive football is not advised,” Hull City said in a release after Mason’s retirement was announced. “Ryan would like to put on record his thanks to all at the club who have aided his recovery to this point and he his is indebted to them for their support and compassion over the past 12 months.”

Before Hull City’s match against Sheffield, an important one with Hull battling relegation, Mason was brought out on the pitch and received a warm reception from the patchy crowd.

As the club did after his injury, they put a message on the screen with the Twitter hashtag #OneRyanMason.

Mason picked up his first job since retirement over the weekend, commentating on Sky Sports in studio for a Championship match between Aston Villa and Preston North End, which ended in a 1-1 draw. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind – it’s been crazy. I’ve had a lot of messages and it’s been a lot to take in,” Mason said on the broadcast. “I’ve been quite positive throughout and I’m looking to the next chapter now.”It’s difficult [to accept]. For the last year I’ve been working as hard as I can to get back on a football pitch. But when you’re long-term health comes into it then it’s a lot easier. There is more to life than football.

Wigan boss defends fans after pitch-storming

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Wigan Athletic boss Paul Cook is defending his supporters following a memorable upset of Manchester City in the FA Cup.

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Latics fans stormed the pitch at the DW Stadium, a celebratory but dangerous scene which included “disturbances” between supporters of both clubs and a confronration between fans and Sergio Aguero.

But it takes just a look at the above photo to see both sides of the issues, as the photographer at right catches fans and players celebrating together… while Aguero rages behind him.

From Sky Sports:

“You’ve got to remember the pure emotions of the night for Wigan fans,” he said.

“They didn’t really turn up to see us win – that’s the truth of it. I’ve got a picture of my son in the directors’ box – he’s only 12 – with his head in his hands looking at the floor because he couldn’t watch.

“We certainly don’t want to see fans engaging with players. The players’ protection is absolutely paramount. But also the supporters enjoying that moment is a good thing for me.”

There is, also, this photo to show the other side of the scenario. Ultimately in our era, this type should sadly be prevented to defy the potential for the latter. That’s sad, but it’s a litigious world.

Dan Burn of Wigan Athletic celebrates. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)