Mark Hughes Season IV: A New Hope?
Warning! For those of you with a more negative, pessimistic or realist view on football, this post contains unhealthy amounts of optimism.
I want to address an issue, the European dream is not dead. There, I said it. Obviously I am not suggesting that it will be easily achieved, but much like Mark Hughes, I still have hope that it is possible. Firstly we acquire a certain set of conditions that will make qualification more likely, and as devastating as it is to say this, we need Man United to win the FA Cup. Should United win the cup then European qualification will move to 7th place, as the system in which we qualified (where the loser can take the qualification spot if the winner has already acquired European qualification) was scrapped last season.
There is also another situation in which if Liverpool win the Europa League, then they will automatically qualify for the champion’s league, which I am led to believe will create another Europa League place, provided they finish outside of the top 4 and in a position which would normally provide Europa League qualification on league position.
The next, and ultimately most important, challenge will be to finish 7th. The pessimists who made it through the first paragraph are currently scoffing and suggesting that we do not have a cat in hells chance of doing this. Well you probably are correct, but it’s not totally impossible especially with our final game of the season being at home to West Ham, a game that if we are to make 7th will feel like the most significant game the Britannia has seen since our quarter final against West Ham in 2011. For us to gain qualification by finishing seventh we are, as Mark Hughes eluded to in today’s press conference, hoping for other teams to slip up. So let’s go through our competitors for 7th one by one.
Firstly we start with West Ham who currently occupy 6th. West Ham sit 5 points above us with 6 games to play, not looking very likely that we will be able to top them then. Well a lesser reported fact about West Ham this season is that they have struggled to gain victories over teams from the bottom half of the table. And of their remaining 6 games 3 are against teams from this half, the others are against champions elect Leicester, Manchester United who knocked them out of the cup last night, and finally against ourselves.
In the reverse fixtures of these matches earlier in the season they only managed to claim 5 points, and are currently without a win in their last 5 matches. The fact that we have a “six pointer” against them on the final day of the season means we only have to make up 3 points on them prior to this game to mean a win would take us above them. Hopefully with a continuation of their bad form and a heroic win on the final day we can derail the media darling’s plans to have European football at the Olympic stadium next year.
Next are Southampton, 7th in the table 3 points ahead of us with the same amount of games played. Southampton are a team who have only lost 3 league games in 2016 and have looked strong of late, with their next to fixtures being a trip to Goodison Park and at home to Villa, two results many consider a certain win. Here I am somewhat less confident. But football is a volatile game, as Stokies know all too well this season, and we are allowed to have one team finish above us in 6th, provided that Man United can win the cup. One thing that we may be able to take from Southampton is that they take no half measures, they are either on a winning streak or lose several matches in a row, and hopefully the team from the South Coast can fall into a poor run of form allowing for us to make up the 4 points required to top them.
Liverpool are an interesting proposition and a side, who leap frogged us to 8th on Sunday, that are experiencing runs of form similar to ourselves. Liverpool may have gained more consistency since the turn of the year, but are burdened with a heavy run of fixtures throughout the final weeks of the season. Combined with their progress in the match last night they are left having to play a minimum of 9 more games throughout the season, working out at just short of 2 per week. They are not a team who have quality in depth and will certainly prioritise the Europa League over a Premier League finish. However, unlikely it is that we can again rise above Liverpool with the two games in hand we hold on them, it is certainly possible. There is also the small matter of an extra Europa League place should they win that competition themselves and finish between 5th and 7th in the league.
A mention must go to Chelsea, who until last weekend had gone unbeaten under there interim manager Guus Hiddink. Yet Chelsea have the toughest set of fixtures of teams around us with 6 games remaining four of which come against Man City, Tottenham, Liverpool and Leicester; with one of the others coming away to their bogy team Sunderland. Obviously a team with the quality of Chelsea could fly through these challenges leaving us trailing in their dust. But many times this season we have seen Chelsea truly struggle when the pressure is on, and even when it is off.
The final factor in Stoke getting qualification into Europe is Stoke. We have 5 fixtures remaining and much like Southampton all of these come during normal match day weekends, with no extra commitments. Under Mark Hughes we have prided ourselves on finishing seasons strongly, and our previous two seasons under our revolutionary manager we have only lost once each season. To achieve the result we want it appears that this is not an option this time around and I am sure Mr. Hughes will have made that abundantly clear to the squad. Our fixtures are certainly not easy, but there is hope within all of them. Our second half performance against Tottenham was majestic (and I’ve heard a rumour Alderweireld still wakes up in cold sweats due to Joselu’s Cruyff turn past him).
The Manchester City victory was the birth of Stokealona and arguably our best performance of the year. The next two fixtures against Sunderland and Crystal Palace are on paper the easier ones, however neither team appear to be our favourite to play. But both have been extremely poor at times this year, and should we want to qualify for Europe victories in both off these game are essential. This should all set up the final day clash against West Ham in which we may have a chance at expanding the club further than it has ever gone before.
In no way will achieving this be easy, but with Stoke finding their better form, our opposition making mistakes and United winning the Cup (oh god that’s a lot of things that have to go for us) it is one that is possible and I’m sure the squad will be up for.
Written by Tom Thrower
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