Robin Scott-Elliot: Crouch may seem like Stoke's Asprilla, but their problems run deeper than scapegoating a striker

The Weekend Dossier
  • @RobinScottEllio

Memories of the elastic-limbed Tino Asprilla swaddled in an extraordinary fur coat as he arrived at a snowy St James' Park can still send shivers down the hardiest of Newcastle spines.

The Colombian has long been cast as the fall guy for Newcastle's implosion as they pursued that elusive title 15 years ago; it was not so much that Asprilla played badly but for some reason results fell away after his eclectic abilities were shoehorned into a previously successful side.

It was 87 days ago that an eclectic mix of Stoke fans gathered outside the club's Clayton Wood training ground, grinning and gurning as a breathless Sky Sports News reporter gesticulated over his shoulder towards where Peter Crouch was completing a medical. Securing Crouch's signature for a club-record £10m, along with a further £8m outlay on Wilson Palacios was a bold declaration of a club on the rise. After three seasons of acclimatising in the Premier League, it was a telling statement of intent – Stoke were looking up. "I'm pleased as punch," said Tony Pulis.

Crouch's debut brought victory over Liverpool at a buoyant Britannia but eight games on – and a solitary win against Fulham – Stoke's gaze has switched towards the other end of the table. This afternoon they host Blackburn in what has the makings of a pivotal fixture; failure to beat Steve Kean's strugglers and with a tricky run of fixtures – away games at Everton, Wolves and Manchester City are interrupted by a visit from Tottenham – to follow, the early season euphoria will have all but evaporated.

Crouch will undergo a fitness test this morning before Pulis confirms his starting XI. He has scored twice in his nine Premier League starts – a thumping header against Manchester United and a close-range finish at Arsenal. He has not been at his best, but nor have his performances led to widespread demands that Kenwyne Jones be restored to play alongside Jonathan Walters, a pairing that flourished last season. Rather like Asprilla, while Crouch has not been an inappropriate signing, Pulis's side are not performing to the level they consistently reached last season with him in the side.

One factor new for this season for Pulis to contend with is that Europa League duties mean an increased workload – today is their 23rd fixture of the campaign which explains why Pulis added to his squad. They have yet to lose in eight European ties and there lies a clue to their domestic struggles. In Europe Stoke's tactics of set-piece dominance, physicality, fitness, long throws and adroit use of wingers are still capable of surprising opponents. Their two ties with Maccabi Tel Aviv and an admirable display in Kiev are instructive of how Stoke play against any side. In all three games they had around 40 per cent possession and returned two wins over the Israelis and a draw in Ukraine. Last season the week before the FA Cup final they beat Arsenal 3-1 with 26 per cent possession. In that same run of results they beat Wolves 3-0 with 35 per cent possession; never mind the opposition the approach is the same.

Their robust game plan still comes as a surprise over the Channel and beyond while Premier League opponents appear not only to have wised up but also found the means to combat Stoke.

Last season Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant were the source of chance after chance and the expectation was that Crouch would thrive on such a direct source. This season the wingers have not been as effective in the face of extra attention, frequently having two defenders assigned to them. With the supply line cut off opponents have also looked to outnumber Stoke in central midfield, an area that has never been a strength. Last weekend visitors QPR allied that to holding a noticeably high line. Over the 90 minutes the home side completed 118 passes, the fewest any top-flight side has amassed in a match this season.

Their problems have been accentuated by a defence that has let in 14 goals in four games – five of them against Bolton. As in attack, Pulis now has more options to call upon with the arrival of Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson and he does not yet seem certain of his first-choice back four. Last season Pulis started 21 different players in the League, this season he has started 18 already.

For the opening 20 minutes against QPR, Stoke dominated and Crouch crafted the opening goal for Walters. Then he missed a couple of chances, the visitors equalised and 10 minutes into the second half his side were 3-1 down. Ten minutes later Crouch was replaced by Jones, the striker he succeeded as Stoke's record buy.

Five Asides

1. Wigan must find route to goal on their travels starting today

Wigan have managed just two goals in six away games this season, and one of them from a penalty. It's a miserable record and unless it improves markedly at Sunderland this afternoon then come the new year and the return fixture with Steve Bruce's side the future could be looking very grim. Their next six games are home to Arsenal, away to West Bromwich, then home to Chelsea and Liverpool followed by trips to Old Trafford and Stoke.

2. McInnes's branch of Perth coaching tree is flourishing

McDiarmid Park may be the only ground in Britain named after a farmer, but the home of St Johnstone is proving something of a breeding ground for managerial talent. Owen Coyle learnt his trade in Perth, marshalling threadbare resources impressively enough to attract Burnley's attention. Derek McInnes has followed Coyle's path and made an immediate impression since taking over at Bristol City. They had a solitary victory when the Scot arrived – they now have four and have drawn at West Ham as well. Today's visit of Southampton will be his biggest test yet.

3. Will Huddersfield's unbeaten record fall at Valley of doom?

Huddersfield's record run in the Football League faces its sternest challenge when Lee Clark takes his side and their 43-game unbeaten run to League One leaders Charlton. The obvious appeal of the fixture has seen it switched to Monday night and a live TV slot. With Clark in the away dugout and Chris Powell in the home one – from where he has not seen his side lose this season – two more burgeoning managerial talents are on show. But, given the frequent reluctance of Premier League owners to look down, what chance either ever getting a go in the top flight?

4. Why Shakhtar loss could be United or Chelsea's gain

There may be an upside for Chelsea and Manchester United finishing second in their Champions League groups. Going into the final round of fixtures Apoel Nicosia sit on top of Group G. Victory at their GSP Stadium against Shakhtar Donetsk, who have yet to win a game, and the Cypriots will take their place alongside Barcelona and co in the top pot of seeds.

5. Drink driving ban can't stop Barry enjoying 'wee cuppa'

Tweet of the week belongs to Barry Bannan. On Thursday he let the world know how much he loved being tucked up with a "nice wee cuppa tea". Yesterday he was handed an 18-month ban for drink driving.

Robin Scott-Elliot's verdict on all the weekend action

Stoke vs Blackburn

Odds: Home 5-6; Draw 5-2, Away 7-2.

Kick-off: Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm).

Team news: Peter Crouch is doubtful for Stoke with a groin complaint and will undergo late tests along with Matthew Etherington and Rory Delap (both back). Thomas Sorensen retains his place. Blackburn are without Chris Samba and Martin Olsson (hamstring) and the banned David Dunn.

Bolton v Everton

Odds: Home 9-4; Draw 9-4, Away 13-10.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm).

Team news Bolton manager Owen Coyle hopes to welcome on-loan Dedryck Boyata back from an ankle injury to cover for Joe Riley, who misses out with a hamstring complaint. Everton may have Jack Rodwell (rib) back in midfield, while Phil Neville (hamstring) and Sylvain Distin (groin) will undergo late fitness checks.

Chelsea v Wolves

Odds: Home 2-9; Draw 5-1, Away 14-1.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm).

Team news: Ashley Cole returns from the ankle injury that forced him to miss the midweek defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, leaving Michael Essien as Chelsea's only absentee. Wolves have both Jamie O'Hara and Stephen Hunt suspended and Richard Stearman unavailable with a broken wrist. Ronald Zubar may come in at right-back.

Man United v Newcastle

Odds: Home 2-5; Draw 7-2, Away 15-2.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm).

Team news: Wayne Rooney (hip) and Nemanja Vidic (suspension) are expected to return for Manchester United after missing the draw with Benfica in midweek, although Anderson (knee) has been ruled out for three months. Newcastle have continuing doubts over Cheick Tioté (knee) and Leon Best (groin) but Gabriel Obertan (toe) returns.

Norwich v QPR

Odds: Home 5-4; Draw 9-4, Away 11-5.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm).

Team news: Russell Martin continues in defence for Norwich but Zak Whitbread and Daniel Ayala could be named as substitutes as they return from injury. Queen's Park Rangers have doubts over Heidar Helguson (eye), Luke Young (knee) and Danny Gabbidon (thigh), while captain Joey Barton is suspended.

Sunderland v Wigan

Odds: Home 4-6; Draw 13-5, Away 9-2.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm).

Team news: Sunderland welcome back Sebastian Larsson from suspension while Titus Bramble, Fraizer Campbell and Connor Wickham (all knee) are close to returns. Wigan have doubts over James McCarthy (groin) and Franco di Santo (quad). Hugo Rodallega returns to the starting XI but defender Antolin Alcaraz remains suspended.

West Brom v Tottenham

Odds: Home 3-1; Draw 13-5, Away 10-11.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm).

Team news: West Bromwich manager Roy Hodgson has Peter Odemwingie, Paul Scharner (both knee) and Shane Long (leg) available, although doubts remain over Graham Dorrans (ankle). Rafael van der Vaart (hamstring) and Jermain Defoe (groin) could miss out for Tottenham, with Roman Pavlyuchenko standing by to cover.

Arsenal v Fulham

Odds: Home 4-9; Draw 16-5, Away 7-1.

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC 1 10.20pm).

Team news: Arsenal have no new injury concerns, with Tomas Rosicky available again after recovering from a thigh complaint. Carl Jenkinson (back) and Bacary Sagna (ankle) remain out. Fulham are without Republic of Ireland internationals Damien Duff (calf) and Stephen Kelly (thigh), although new parent John Arne Riise returns.

Swansea v Aston Villa

Odds: Home 6-5; Draw 23-10, Away 9-4.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2 10pm).

Team news: Joe Allen (calf) returns for Swansea and Steven Caulker has returned to training. Jermaine Jenas returns to contention for Aston Villa after being ineligible for Monday's defeat at Spurs but fellow midfielders Stiliyan Petrov (hamstring) and Chris Herd (leg) are doubts.

Liverpool v Man City

Odds: Home 9-5; Draw 9-4, Away 6-4.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2 10pm).

Team news: Liverpool are again likely to name Jamie Carragher on the bench, while Stewart Downing is pushing for a recall. Steven Gerrard (ankle) remains out. Mario Balotelli (fever) is available for Manchester City, while Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez remain out.