Finding the final piece of the jigsaw and stalling after a bright start: The lowdown on Blackpool’s upcoming opponents Stoke City

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Blackpool are in midweek action against a Stoke City side that sit just two points below them in the Championship table.

 

The Seasiders moved up to sixth place in the Championship following their 1-0 win against Sheffield United at the weekend.

Neil Critchley’s men, who have won seven of their last 10, now face back-to-back home games before the international break, taking on the Potters in midweek before hosting QPR in front of the Sky Sports cameras on Saturday.

Wednesday’s opponents Stoke have stalled a little in recent weeks after making a bright start to the campaign.

Michael O’Neill’s side are without a win in their last five and squandered a three-goal lead to draw 3-3 at home to Cardiff City on Saturday.

Nevertheless, they still find themselves in ninth place in the table, just two points adrift of the Seasiders.

Ahead of Wednesday night’s encounter, The Gazette caught up with Peter Smith, Stoke City reporter for The Sentinel.

Stoke boss Michael O'Neill

Stoke boss Michael O’Neill

– What’s been the story of Stoke’s season so far? Is it fair to say things have stalled a little recently after a bright start?

Yes, probably a fair comment. There was real optimism heading into the last international break that Michael O’Neill had cracked it. Stoke had looked really good in a home win over West Brom and were third.

But they’ve since thrown away leads to lose or draw in three of the next four games and lost the other on a niggly, frustrating evening against Bournemouth.

There are a lot of positives about a young, energetic team that tries to play on the front foot but whether it’s seeing a game out or not conceding soft goals, there’s a big piece of the jigsaw still to find.

– What’s the realistic aim for Stoke this season? Play-offs?

There have been three bottom half finishes since relegation from the Premier League so the bottom line is to move in the right direction.

But it would be disappointing not to challenge for the top six, particularly in a division when the door really seems open to teams who can show consistency and discipline.

At the moment, however, no one is looking past trying to get the next win and getting back on track.

– How is Michael O’Neill viewed by the fans?

A proper manager, I think.

He inherited a mess, to put it kindly, and has tried to instil an identity and stop the club drifting or sinking.

He was dealt a difficult hand with a bloated, expensive, poor and poorly balanced squad and has had to try to build a new one on a tight budget while getting rid of some no hopers.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t expectations, though, and pressure. The goal for everyone is to get back to the Premier League.

– Who are the Stoke players Blackpool fans should look out for?

Not Nick Powell, lucky for Blackpool. He’s been Stoke’s talisman for the last couple of years but is currently out with a crack in his leg.

There are high hopes for young keeper Joe Bursik and 23-year-old centre-back Harry Souttar, who did well on loan up the road at Fleetwood.

– How’s former Seasider Jordan Thompson been getting on? He looks to be a regular under Michael O’Neill.

He’s done all right, a pretty reliable and hard-working performer.

The big trick for Stoke at the moment is to get the balance of midfield right. They look great in possession with Romaine Sawyers, Joe Allen and Mario Vrancic but they’ve come unstuck without the ball.

It’s a big ask for Thompson to tie that together but there is an opening at the moment to really stake his claim to be that man.

– How are things looking on the injury/suspension front?

Nick Powell is still out and Morgan Fox (hamstring) won’t be ready either.

There are a couple of other players like James Chester and Steven Fletcher who have to be managed through three-game weeks while Tyrese Campbell is building back sharpness after a long-term knee injury.

Abdallah Sima, a deadline day loan signing from Brighton, is also fit and hoping to feature.