Cast your mind back to early February. You may recall statisticians wildly proclaiming that this season’s relegation battle was one of the closest in history. Indeed, tenth placed Aston Villa were a mere eight points ahead of bottom club Fulham. Such proximity between clubs led to the birth of an imaginary table within the Premier League. Who could finish at the top of this pile of clubs?
In recent weeks, Stoke City have been making a strong charge for that coveted top half finish, demonstrating all the qualities needed to become champions: strong home form, beating your rivals and grinding out results.
The Britannia has always been a difficult place to go. The swirling winds and tumultuous support has made it an intimidating ground. With just two defeats in 16 matches at home, the Potters have the best home record outside of the top five clubs. Mark Hughes’ addition of an elegant, passing philosophy to the grit and resilience that characterised the team under Tony Pulis, has certainly worked a treat.
Every manager knows the importance of beating those teams that occupy positions close to you in the league. The ‘six-pointer’ is crucial in expanding or reducing gaps between you and your rivals. In their last three matches, Stoke have defeated three of the teams fiercely competing for this prestigious title, in West Ham, Aston Villa and Hull. In beating these teams, Stoke have massively boosted their title chances, opening up a six point to their nearest challenger.
Grinding out results is the hallmark of champions. Teams hoping to win the league need to be able to see opponents off without playing particularly well. Stoke’s performances against West Ham and Aston Villa were very good, enjoying large periods of possession and looking like the better team for the most part. Saturday’s 1-0 win over Hull was more hard-fought. Unable to break down a well-organised Tigers defence, Stoke struggled to create any meaningful chances; despite possession and territory, something just wasn’t clicking into place. However, in emerging victorious, albeit thanks to an Elmohamady error, Stoke proved that they have what it takes to go on and seize this title in their remaining fixtures.
A top half Premier League finish, a record points total and the chance to be the top Midlands club for the first time in their history are all on offer for Stoke. But, of course, avoiding relegation is the most important task for every club in this league. In reaching the 40-point mark, Stoke have not only achieved that, but also quelled the relegation fears of even the most pessimistic Potter.