I have to own up. In the recent past when Tony Pulis was their manager, one team that I disliked intensely for their style of play was Stoke City. I couldn’t knock their effectiveness, but I just hated to watch games against them, especially in the days of the Delap long throw. Under Mark Hughes they are not favourites of mine either, but their style has improved somewhat, they have some skillful players mixed with their uncompromising ones, and they have become a fixture in finishing in the top half of the Premier League.
For the past three seasons they have finished in a very creditable ninth position, and with just four games to go of this campaign they sit eleventh, just one point away from ninth, which must be the aim of a cluster of clubs, including ourselves, who can all reach this place in the table with a good finishing run.
A bit like ourselves, they began the season disastrously, and at the end of September after six games, they had been beaten four times and drawn two games to leave them in the relegation zone at this early stage. But they did have some difficult fixtures at the beginning, and a kinder group of opponents, including Sunderland, Hull, Swansea and ourselves, enabled them to win three and draw two of their next five games, picking up 11 points in the process and found them climbing the table rapidly by Guy Fawkes night. Two wins in their next three games against Watford and Burnley meant even further progress upwards by the start of December, but then the remaining fixtures of 2016 yielded just two points from five games.
Eight points in the first four games of 2017 meant another upturn in league position, but their defeat on 4 February at home to West Brom, and our win at Southampton that weekend, meant that we sat in 9th place in the table, two points clear of them in 11th. Then they picked up 7 points in their next four games, including a creditable goalless draw at Manchester City (who had put 4 goals past them in their first home game of the season at the Bet 365 stadium). Since then they have had another poor run of results winning just one (at home to Hull), and losing five of their last six games.
So what can we conclude from this brief analysis of our opponents this weekend in trying to predict the outcome of the game? Not a lot really. Generally they have beaten weaker teams, and lost to the top teams, in a roller coaster of a season with inconsistency to match our own. Recent history of fixtures against them does not bode particularly well. This will be our tenth meeting with them since our return to the top flight. In the nine matches played, Stoke have won three, and five have ended as draws; our solitary victory was a 1-0 win on their ground in March 2013 thanks to a Jack Collison goal.
We should have beaten them in the final game of last season when a stirring first half performance should have seen us go in at the interval with more than a one goal advantage given to us by Michail Antonio. But the euphoria of the final game at Upton Park just a few days earlier wore off, and in typical West Ham fashion we allowed them back into the game with an equaliser early in the second half, before Diouf wrapped up the three points with a goal two minutes from the end. It was a game that mirrored the final fixture of the previous season (against Everton) where we took the lead and had control of the game before conceding an equaliser against the run of play, and then lost it in stoppage time.
At least we have halted our run of five consecutive defeats by picking up five points from our unbeaten last three games, edging us towards safety. We are not quite there yet, and could do with another point or three to ensure mathematical safety. Will we get them this weekend? I certainly hope so, but in all honesty I really don’t know.