GROSS - Ross Kinnaird
Aston Villa has taken a big step in the right direction in recent weeks, but the challenge posed by Stoke City could be a defining moment in the season.
If you've been watching the Premier League for a few years, you're familiar with Stoke. How they're constructed, how they play, how unpleasant they can be to watch (depending on your preferences, of course.) They're a side that's given Aston Villa plenty of trouble in recent years, their last Premier League win over the Potters coming in 2009, and there's little reason to expect the story to be different this time around; this is probably the best Stoke side of the Tony Pulis era, and their style of play seems destined to give this Villa side fits.
Stoke has put the days of annual relegation battles behind them and are now a very comfortable mid-table side. But as our very own Gareth Simpson pointed out in some pre-match conversation, they're still going about things in much the same way as they always have, just at a much higher level. They are a system team, built very much in Tony Pulis' image, and whatever your opinions on the aesthetic merits of said system it's difficult to argue with the results. From humble origins and on a modest budget, Stoke has achieved remarkable stability and given their trajectory could very well be in the mix for Europe in the near future.
Aston Villa has taken a slightly different approach to things, as we all know. The midfield is soft, but it's clever. And against sides like Swansea or Reading, that approach can work. But when Wilson Palacios, Steven N'Zonzi, and Charlie Adam are involved, it's a battle for survival. And that, realistically, is going to be what decides things; can whatever combination of Barry Bannan, Ashley Westwood and Karim El Ahmadi stand up to the steamroll that is Stoke's midfield?
It's an important consideration, because if the Potters are able to establish a presence in the center of the park then there's a good chance they'll get the ball to Peter Crouch, and without Ron Vlaar there's not really anyone in this Villa side to neutralize such a freak of nature. And even if the defense if equal to the task, if Stoke can control central midfield then Villa doesn't have much chance of asserting themselves in any real manner.Villa's best chance of a win comes from their diminutive midfield dominating the flow of the game, and though such a thing seems unlikely, it would be a tremendous coup.
As would, in general, taking three points from Stoke. Because sides like Villa tend to have a great deal of trouble against sides like Stoke, and if nothing else a win would show that this tea, can compete at both ends of the spectrum. And in many ways, a win over the Potters would be nearly as sweet as a win over City, Spurs or Arsenal. But the kids need to play out of their minds, and they need to be much more clever than usual, because though a point might be their for the taking, a win will require a level of toughness that we just haven't seen from this squad.