Everton manager David Moyes had high praise indeed for Stoke City after the two sides fought out a tough 1-1 draw at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, but was the Blues boss right to suggest that the Potters are contenders to qualify for the Champions League next season?
On the face of it, Moyes might be getting a bit carried away talking about a team who have never even finished in the top half of the Premier League in four seasons as a top-flight club, but funny as it might be to remember what happened to Glenn Whelan last time he locked horns with Xavi during Euro 2012 and speculate what Barcelona would do to the Potters, is it really that far-fetched?
Perhaps, but Stoke are having a fine season. Currently in ninth place, Tony Pulis’ side are just four points adrift of the much-coveted fourth spot and if we accentuate the positives, we can make a case for the Potters’ European bid.
Stoke have the best defensive record in the entire division and have only conceded 13 goals in 17 games. They have kept eight clean sheets, which is two more than anybody else has managed, and are in the middle of a seven-game unbeaten run in the league.
In fact, only Norwich and Manchester United have taken more points than Pulis’ side in the six-game form guide and there is a feeling that Pulis might, for the first time in his career as a top-flight boss, be looking up the table rather than over his shoulder.
Stoke are currently at a huge 100/1 to secure a top-four finish, which means returns of £2,000 are on offer for new bwin customers successfully backing them with their free £20 bet after registering.
But in truth, their paltry scoring rate – no team have scored fewer goals than Stoke’s 15, although Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers have also scored that amount – will come back to haunt them and it would be a major surprise if a team with such a poor away record could finish in the top four.
With just one win from their nine trips so far this term, Stoke do not look like improving a record which saw them take maximum points in a meagre 13 away games in their previous four years back in the Premier League.
Whatever the merits of Stoke’s Champions League credentials – and it would be good to see if Lionel Messi really could do it on a cold, wet, windy Tuesday night in Stoke – Moyes’ general point is certainly true: fourth spot is up for grabs for anyone who can put a bit of consistency together.
Only seven points separate Chelsea in third with Liverpool in 12th and with most of those sides wildly inconsistent and finding it hard to win games on a regular basis, this season more than ever looks like the time for a team to gatecrash the top four.