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Stoke City v Blackburn Rovers – Preview

  Five places and six points clear of the relegation zone, this first Premier League season for Stoke City looks like having a very happy ending, with survival now within touching distance, and many people claiming that it is just one win away. This Saturday should offer the perfect chance to claim that crucial three points, with Blackburn, three places and two points worse off than Stoke making the visit to the Britannia Stadium, which has been something of a fortress this year. Amazingly, prior to last week’s 1-1 draw against Newcastle, we had won more points per home game on average this season, when for the most part we have struggled near the foot of the table, than last season in the Championship, when we spent the majority of the season inside the top two.

More euphoric scenes could be round the corner

  As much as survival would mean to Stoke, it would mean to Blackburn, so we can be sure that, particularly with Sam Allardyce, one of football’s more bullish figures at the helm, they will be coming on Saturday prepared to fight, and that crucial ninth home win of the season will not come easily. It’s been a very tough season for the Lancashire club as a whole, with new manager Paul Ince completely failing to build anything resembling a team capable of achieving anything in the Premier League after the departure of Mark Hughes last summer, but Allardyce has brought stability to the club, and now I’d expect them to stay up.

The dawn of a golden era

  Like any Allardyce team, we can expect Blackburn to be physical and play a direct style that closely mirrors our own. In recent games, the former-Bolton boss has opted to play humongous Congolese centre-back Christopher Samba up front ahead of the more recognised, and in my view more far more potent striker Benni McCarthy. This gamble certainly didn’t pay off last week, as Blackburn were completely outplayed by Liverpool, losing 4-0 and displaying a soft-centre that the best teams seem to have been able to exploit. I believe that behind the tough exterior, there are defensive weaknesses in the Blackburn side, and the level to which we are able to exploit them, and unlike last week take our chances when they come, will be the key to whether we are celebrating or beginning to get a little more twitchy come five o’clock on Saturday.

  Stoke striker James Beattie, who is Blackburn born and bred and began his career at the club, is a minor doubt for Stoke after suffering a serious head would when he was caught, allegedly deliberately, by Newcastle’s Sebastien Bassong on Saturday, but he should be fit to face the club he watched as a child. Meanwhile, there are no new injury concerns for Tony Pulis and Stoke, with Senegalese trio Salif Diao, Amdy Faye and Henri Camara looking to shake off problems to return to the Stoke squad. I’d be particularly enamoured if the latter is able to, as with Beattie a potential absentee, it is possible that the only option to partner Ricardo Fuller up front would be Richard Cresswell, who I fear is simply not good enough at Premier League level. Stoke captain Abdoulaye Faye, who played under Allardyce at Bolton has this week in interview stated his intentions of scoring against Blackburn, who reportedly had a bid of £4 million to try to sign him turned down by Stoke in January. If he says he’s going to score, you’d better believe him.

Stoke’s Senegalese trio Salif Diao, Amdy Faye and Henri Camara will battle for fitness

  The visitors will be without Grenadian forward Jason Roberts, who has an ankle injury, as well as midfielders Steven Reid and Brett Emerton, who both have knee problems, for the game. There are also doubts over the fitness of Rory Delap wannabe Morten Gamst Pedersen and key striker Roque Santa Cruz, who has had a disappointing and unsettled season after a move to Manchester City failed to materialise. Aaron Mokoena, who is apparently a Stoke target when his contract expires at the end of the season, though he has today said he would like to stay on at Ewood Park, may play in the heart of the Blackburn midfield.

Key Battles:

James Beattie v Christopher Samba
Assuming Samba occupies his more customary centre-back role, he will be engaged in a heavyweight battle with Beattie, whose goals have played a huge part in lifting Stoke away from immediate danger. Failure to neutralise the threat of Beattie could spell trouble for the leaky Blackburn defence.

Picture of James Beattie  Picture of Christopher Samba

Andy Wilkinson v Morten Gamst Pedersen
Stoke right-back Wilkinson has dealt admirably with some tricky wingers since he became first choice in the position back in December, and he will face another stiff challenge when he comes up against Pedersen, who I expect to shake off his injury to play. Despite poor goalscoring form recently, Pedersen still plays a key role in a lot of Blackburn’s attacking play and Wilkinson will have to be on his best physical form to keep him out of the game.

Picture of Andy Wilkinson  Picture of Morten Gamst Pedersen

Rory Delap v Paul Robinson
Delap’s long throws, which you can now see imitated on any Sunday League pitch in the country, have been back to their enormously dangerous best in the last few home games, causing great difficulties for goalkeepers. The ability of former first-choice England ‘keeper Robinson to deal with them could be crucial to the outcome of the game.

Picture of Rory Delap  Picture of Paul Robinson

Blackburn Squad:

Goalkeepers: Paul Robinson (29), Jason Brown (26), Mark Bunn (24), Bjorn Bussman (18)

Defenders: Stephen Warnock (27), Cristopher Samba (25), Ryan Nelsen (31), Andre Ooijer (34), Zurab Khizanishvili (27), Danny Simpson (22), Gael Givet (27), Martin Olsson (20), Gavin Gunning (18)

Midfielders: Morten Gamst Pedersen (27), Keith Andrews (28), Brett Emerton (30), Tugay (38), David Dunn (29), Vince Grella (29), Carlos Villanueva (23), Aaron Mokoena(28), Steven Reid (28), Keith Treacy (20), Andy Haworth (20), Aaron Doran (17), Bryan Hodge (21), Alex Marrow (19)

Forwards: Benni McCarthy (31), Roque Santa Cruz (27), Jason Roberts (31), El Hadji Diouf (28), Marcus Marshall (19), Julio Santa Cruz (19)

Star Man: Benni McCarthy
  Some people might find this choice of star man strange, as Roque Santa Cruz is the far more obvious and glamorous choice, but I feel that McCarthy has been a far more significant player for Blackburn this season. Both centre-forwards, both have played 27 games, McCarthy scoring eleven times, Santa Cruz just six. In a position where goalscoring is vital, that’s why I feel McCarthy is more deserving of the star man status.

  The South African international, who has 76 caps for his country, and has scored 32 international goals, began his career at local side Seven Stars, where incredible goalscoring form of better than a goal a game earned him a move to more influential side Ajax Cape Town, a feeder of the Amsterdam version, who he joined in 1990. Via Celta Vigo and FC Porto, he found himself at Blackburn in 2006, joining from the Portuguese club for £2.5 million. After a good first season in England, he has enjoyed moderate, albeit injury-hampered success, as is currently the club’s top scorer.

Comparative Club Stats: (includes cup games)         Stoke                  Blackburn

League Position:                                                                     13th                       16th

Goals Scored:                                                                           39                                50

Goals Conceded:                                                                      55                              65

Home Form: (W,D,L)                                                      9,6,4                            7,7,6

Away Form: (W,D,L)                                                                2,4,12                          6,5,10

Clean Sheets:                                                                            10                              9

Failed to Score:                                                                         11                            14

Form:                                                                                   DWWLWD                   LWDLWD

Top Scorer:                                                                           Fuller (8)               McCarthy (11) 

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