Burnley go into their first top flight match in 33 years with defensive problems, although Reading’s Andre Bikey looks set to sign for a near club record equalling fee in the next few days.
Burnley will definitely be without the suspended David Edgar and the injured Michael Duff, and Steven Caldwell tweaked his groin playing in Scotland’s 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Norway on Wednesday and may be unable to play.
That would leave Clarke Carlisle as the only recognised centre-back in the squad, giving manager Owen Coyle a choice of Chris McCann, Stephen Jordan or Richard Eckersley to accompany Carlisle. However, Caldwell is sure to want to lead the team out at the Britannia and it would be no surprise to see him play through the pain.
In the middle is where Burnley have their riches. Coyle has played 4-4-2 more often than not in pre-season and packing the midfield is a pointless tactic against the Potters’ long-ball game so it seems likely the Clarets will go into the game with four in midfield and two up front.
£3m man Steven Fletcher is a certainty to start as the only regular scorer in pre-season and Martin Paterson – who played for Stoke as a youngster - will partner him assuming he recovers from a hamstring problem in time. Steven Thompson and Jay Rodriguez are likely to be utilised from the bench.
On the flanks Coyle has four to choose from: Chris Eagles, Robbie Blake, Wade Elliott and loan signing Fernando Guerrero. However, Elliott may be deployed in the centre of the park, as he was for the latter stages of last season and indeed as he was at Wembley where he scored the wonder goal to seal promotion. Coyle will probably blood Guerrero in the reserves and from the subs bench before throwing him into the team.
Coyle also has the problem of what to do with Graham Alexander. The veteran had a poor game in Norway on Wednesday for Scotland and showed last season that he isn’t capable of playing in a central midfield two. But if Eckersley is deployed at centre-back in place of Caldwell, he could be asked to revert to his old position of right full-back.
Stoke’s baseball cap-wearing boss Tony Pulis has had a quiet transfer window, with Sunderland’s skipper Dean Whitehead his only signing of note. Whitehead will slot straight into City’s midfield alongside former Clarets target Glenn Whelan, with Liam Lawrence and Matthew Etherington likely to line up on the flanks. Former Liverpool man Salif Diao will be another midfield option, but he will start from the bench.
Pulis will have to work out where to put human catapult Rory Delap this season – as a player he isn’t good enough for the Premier League but his throw is a weapon that unsettled even the best last season.
In goal Thomas Sorensen has bags of experience but at the back Stoke have mainly young talent. Ryan Shawcross had a terrific debut top-flight season in the middle of the back four and City will look to him to keep improving and to build on his already solid partnership with Abdoulaye Faye. Unfussy and uncultured but strong lads Andy Wilkinson and Carl Dickinson are likely to be the full-backs, although journeyman Danny Higginbotham will rival Dickinson for the berth on the left.
Up front, January signing James Beattie was one of the main reasons Stoke finished in a lofty 12th and he will again lead the line, with Burnley’s former nemesis Ricardo Fuller again pitting his wits against the Clarets. Dave Kitson has been in stunning form in pre-season, however, and he may have forced his way into Pulis’ plans despite an inauspicious start to his Potters career last term.
Stoke’s direct tactics have been well documented but if they are to match last season’s impressive 12th place finish they will need to come up with a plan B. Burnley are well versed in dealing with hoof-merchants after a long season in the Championship and will fancy their chances of coping with Stoke’s attacks. But the likes of Lawrence, Fuller and Etherington have a bit of quality that makes them the likely match-winners for the hosts.
Burnley will look to Chris Eagles to show why the club forked out a record fee for him last summer as well as hoping Steven Fletcher and Martin Paterson will come up with the goals to keep the Clarets safe. All the games in the Premier League will be tough for Burnley but this is sure to be a tricky start with the Potters support always making it difficult for away teams.
But the Clarets know a result is vital with a horrible run of four virtually unwinnable games coming up after the Britannia trip, and will do enough to collect a first ever Premier League point, with Fletcher bagging a debut goal.Prediction: 1-1
This article was written for FansOnline.