We met Stoke at Upton Park in 2015. I looked back on my report of the game at that time. Some of the things I wrote included, “in goal, Jack Butland (at 22) already looks the complete goalkeeping package, and I reckon he is the best England keeper at the moment.” I also added, “despite their attacking prowess it is not difficult to see why they are the lowest scoring team in the Premier League at the moment.” And “their finishing was poor, and when they were on target Adrian was able to keep them out. Our defence held up well, and Adrian was determined not to be beaten”.
Although Butland has been injured for over thirteen months, and this was only his second game back, then on the evidence of this game, my judgement on his goalkeeping prowess remains sound. And, although they are not the lowest scoring team in the Premier League this season, they are one of the lowest, and their “goals for” column does not match their league position. And again, our defence held up well, and Adrian was similarly determined not to be beaten, including some fine saves. It was Groundhog Day in many respects.
It certainly wasn’t the worst 0-0 draw you could see (just like our home game against them last season), but it was a game that both sides could have won. In the end, both were probably happy with the point. Once again, the manager’s decisions baffled me a little. The continuing selection of Calleri is one that I just cannot fathom, and despite the fact that he “moves well”, he is in the team to score goals. It would be useful, and he would stand more chance of doing so, if he could hit the target! And the rabona was quite ridiculous I thought. Save that for Rush Green. The fact that we took off Ayew, who looked the most likely to score, and brought on Noble, handed the late initiative to Stoke. Strange managerial decisions that, to me, were difficult to comprehend.
For the past three seasons Stoke have finished in a very creditable ninth position, and if you read some of the comments on social media criticising our team for not beating a “poor Stoke side” then I think they are misleading. Stoke, like ourselves, are just members of the mid-table cluster of clubs that are nowhere near good enough to be challenging the top six in the table, but at the same time are just a little too good to go down. This group stretches from Southampton in ninth place on 41 points, down to Palace in sixteenth on 38. Of course some of these sides are not yet mathematically safe from the drop, but it would be a surprise if any of them didn’t already have enough points.
The Swansea draw at Manchester United takes them up to 32 points with three games left, and if they win all three then they could reach 41. As top flight games go, all are winnable (home v Everton, away v Sunderland, and home v West Brom), but with their goal difference as it is then all would need to be won to overtake us. Hull are two points better off on 34, so they could conceivably get to 43, and their three remaining fixtures are at home to Sunderland, away to Palace (this could be a really significant game, especially if Swansea are still in touch), and finally at home to Tottenham. Palace have 38, and apart from the Hull game, they have two potentially very difficult games in Manchester, although they have a healthy goal difference compared to others in the bottom half.
Taking all of this into account then 39 points is likely to be enough, but it is still disappointing to be facing three potentially difficult games to finish our season, and still have an outside chance of relegation. It was therefore important for us to pick up six points from our last four unbeaten games, and the draw at Stoke could turn out to be the one that took us to safety. It is amusing to look at the contrasting ways our recent form has been described. Unbeaten in four games sounds quite good, but one win in the last eleven games does not.
I thought that Swansea were very unlucky to only get a draw at Old Trafford, where yet another dubious penalty decision (I say dubious, but I really think diabolical) was awarded to the home side. The referee took his time before giving the decision and then got it wrong. They really shouldn’t guess in these circumstances, and if they are not sure then they shouldn’t give it. Sigurdsson’s free kick to equalise was sublime. Now that is one player I’d like to see in our team next season, as opposed to so many that we are allegedly linked with, but I guess he will have a number of suitors if Swansea go down, and I’m not sure that we are an attractive enough proposition for such a talented player.
So we move on to face an in-form Tottenham side on Friday night. Whoever decided that this was a suitable game to be moved to a Friday night for television purposes just doesn’t have any real idea about the animosity of the fans towards each other. I’m amazed that the police were in agreement to the switch, and I anticipate a large contingent there to try to ensure it goes off without any real issues. However, I am looking forward to my penultimate visit to the London Stadium this season as I had another engagement on Saturday afternoon; so for purely personal reasons I am pleased with the change of day. This is our twenty-first season in the Premier League, and after the point we picked up at Stoke we have now collected 998 points in the 803 games we have played to date. It would be nice to reach 1000 in the game against our North London neighbours. What are the chances?