Thursday 5 March ~
With roughly ten games remaining, forecasts will start to be made as to who should be the Premier League manager of the season. Alex Ferguson, on the verge of his 11th English title as his dominant Manchester United side march unerringly towards a third consecutive championship, will be high in the reckoning. Likewise Martin O'Neill, who has enjoyed an excellent season with Aston Villa with his side threatening to break the dominance of the supposed top four by qualifying for next season's Champions League in fourth place ahead of Arsenal. There will be calls for David Moyes at Everton, who despite terrible injuries all season look set for Europe again, sitting comfortably sixth in the table.
However, if Tony Pulis manages to keep Stoke up in their first season in the top flight in 23 years, despite being written off as relegation fodder by everyone at the start of the season, he would get my vote without a doubt. There were another vital three points for the home side at the Britannia Stadium last night with a defeat of Bolton, taking their impressive haul in home matches to 25 points, including seven wins. Although only their second success in 14 League games, goals from James Beattie and Ricardo Fuller saw the Potters rise from 19th to 15th – a massive shot in the arm for their survival hopes. Beattie has fired five goals in seven games since his January move up from the Championship, switching the red and white of Sheffield United for that of Stoke. If survival in the Premier League is worth £30 million upwards, his transfer for £3.5m looks a masterstroke. The game was another example of just how difficult Tony Pulis's men are to face on their own turf – beaten just once in 11 League games, and that a late defeat to title-bound Manchester United on Boxing Day, and by just two other sides, Everton and Chelsea, all season.
With their next three home games against other teams in the relegation mix, Stoke can conceivably go some way to pulling clear of the drop zone and towards the safety of mid-table. First up, struggling Middlesbrough, who despite last weekend's impressive 2-0 victory over Liverpool are still on a terrible run away from home – just two wins and eight goals all season and a damaging 4-0 defeat in the capital against Tottenham last night testament to that. Pulis's side then visit West Brom, who, propping up the table and falling away quickly, will be under pressure to win at all costs. Next visiting the Britannia Stadium come a Newcastle team that are dropping like a stone. Managerless and with just one win in ten, they won't fancy going to a ground that has so far seen the likes of Aston Villa, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham leave empty-handed. Sam Allardyce takes his Blackburn bruisers to face Stoke the following weekend in another six-pointer at the bottom.
Of the current top five teams in the League, Stoke face just one in their remaining games, a trip to Arsenal on the last day. Their rivals however have a far harder run-in. Newcastle will take on four of the top five with last night's defeat at home to Alex Ferguson's champions-elect kicking off a difficult run-in. Hull face three games against the top clubs, including Manchester United on the last day. Middlesbrough have play Arsenal and Man Utd over consecutive weekends in April, while Blackburn still have to travel to Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. As mentioned, the last day of the season gives Stoke a difficult away game to Arsenal at the Emirates and points will surely need to be in the bag by then – but they might yet go into the game with their safety assured. Chris Hill