As I sat down to write this — amid transfer deadline madness — I was struck by a re-assuring thought. The pressure is completely off us going into this deadline. The planning for Victor Moses’ departure began a long time ago and his move could not have been more swiftly put behind us. Whilst not replacing like for like, we have three very able strikers and a host of talented attacking midfielders competing for three berths. While a new body or two are always welcome, they are certainly not necessary and I imagine they would add depth and cover, rather than an immediate first team challenge. As has become a theme when reporting on the progress this club has made under Roberto Martinez and Dave Whelan’s partnership, there is simply no comparison to this time last year, when Charles N’Zogbia’s departure and Shaun Maloney and Albert Crusat’s adjustment periods totally derailed the team’s start to the season.
Indeed, in the two matches immediately following Vic’s departure, we have scored six goals — each from a different player, and each more emphatic than the last. We’ve had long range strikes, one-on-ones, headers from crosses, left foot, right foot, from all three strikers, two attacking midfielders and our left back. Victor who?
This should not be read as a wildly optimistic view on our chances against Stoke this weekend, but rather for the season and indeed seasons to come. Stoke are always a tricky proposition, and stakes always seem to be high when we play them. That said, our record against them in the Premier League is good, with our only loss coming away in 2009. In the other seven encounters, we’ve drawn five times and beaten them twice, including that victory to stay up two seasons ago. Statistics are on our side, just.
But it’s not all optimism from me today. I think we’ve been something of a bogey team for Stoke — and we’ve been lucky against them. Be it Ben Watson’s late penalty to equalize after Gary Caldwell’s sending off at The Britannia last year, or managing to keep the ball out of Al-Habsi’s net in the first half of the survival match Rodallega ultimately won for us, I think we’ve been riding our luck a bit against them. Logic says that luck will eventually turn, so I reserve a little concern for tomorrow’s clash.
This all said, we are showing the sort of form that doesn’t rely on luck. The cup win against Nottingham Forest carried on where the excellent away win at Southampton left off, underlining the strength in depth Roberto has at his disposal. There are few superstars in the lineup, but there is strong cover for every position, except goalkeeper.
Which means Antolin Alcaraz’s suspension, the lone negative from Tuesday’s cup tie, will be a much lesser problem than it would have been four months ago. We can expect a back three of Figueroa, Caldwell and Ramis (who by the end of the match will have played in all three centre-back positions in his first four matches for the club) — and the inclusion of now-fit Jean Beausejour at left wingback. Emmerson Boyce will likely return at right wingback despite Ronnie Stam’s strong performance mid-week. The Jimmy Macs will almost certainly reclaim the midfield with Maloney ahead of them. The big question is who will start in the attacking berths. Jordi Gomez’s performances this season have been of a high standard and he might be in with outside chance if Roberto feels conservative with his lineup. More likely is a repeat of the Southampton strikeforce, with Koné and Di Santo up front. But Mauro Boselli’s goal and performance had the manager raving, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could be given the nod. If you haven’t already, check out our interview with the Argentine here.
Meanwhile, Stoke were booed off at half-time in the home cup loss to Swindon — who incidentally also knocked Latics out of the FA Cup last season. In the league, they drew away to newly promoted Reading and at home to Arsena, both respectable results, and have just signed Charlie Adam from Liverpool for 4 million pounds. Presumably he will take the set pieces they are always dangerous on, but we are unlikely to see much of the playmaking he showed at Blackpool in a team that likes to bypass that part of the pitch. Fellow new signing Michael Kightly has looked impressive for them and will be a threat.
An interesting one as always. With a trip to Old Trafford coming soon, a positive result in this one with be vital to keep the good feeling we’re enjoying at the moment.
Prediction: 2-1 Latics.