- Stoke City v Manchester United
Stoke looking to strike Euro balanceKevin Keegan September 23, 2011
Stoke City have undergone a huge transformation in recent years and when Manchester United arrive at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday they will not face the one-dimensional side tipped to be immediately relegated after promotion to the Premier League three years ago, but a confident, versatile team that is balancing a European adventure with life as an established top-flight club.
That balancing act will be Tony Pulis' main challenge this season. Stoke have really overachieved by getting into Europe and they will have to deal with a lot more games, which will see tiredness and injuries become more prevalent. They're not going to finish in the top four but are playing the same amount of games as those clubs who will, clubs who have much bigger and stronger squads because they've been there for years and have the knowledge and finance that goes with competing regularly at that level.
People think that playing in European football is great but Stoke are in that very difficult position where it can become an anchor. Everyone talks about Europe and how fantastic it is and, though the Champions League certainly is, the Europa League isn't really that glamorous. When I managed Man City, we qualified for Europe for the first time in 24 years and it was great for the fans. But we drew a Welsh club, TNS, and travelled just 30 miles down the road and then played Sporting Lokeren and a Polish club - Groclin Dyskobolia - who no-one had heard of. They knocked us out and it really knocked the confidence of the team - that's what the European 'dream' was for us that year.
The test for Stoke is that they're going to play in the Premier League after they've had to travel round all corners of Europe for a tough game on a Thursday. Having to regularly play three games in seven days is physically and mentally draining for players and Stoke don't have the depth of the likes of Man United, Chelsea and Man City. In the Carling Cup this week City beat Birmingham with a reserve side, but it included Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli up front; Stoke may be in the same division as them but they're not in the same league when it comes to quality and size of squad.
I'm not saying Stoke won't do okay in Europe and in fact they've done brilliantly so far but there may be a cost in the league. That didn't seem apparent at the start of the season because they began well but you look at the 4-0 defeat to Sunderland and those little warning signs may need to be heeded. I'm not sure Stoke are quite ready for European football yet and Tony might start looking at what Tottenham and Aston Villa have done in recent years, basically looking to get out of the Europa League at the earliest opportunity because they wanted to be consistent in the Premier League.
Perhaps Tony won't have to worry about that but he will definitely be wary of the danger of sacrificing league form. Fulham had a great run in the Europa League a couple of seasons ago but they only took 12 points from their final 12 Premier League games - that's the affect it can have.
All that said, though, everyone involved with Stoke City should certainly enjoy the European ride while they can; we saw them beat Bolton in the FA Cup semi-final on ESPN last year and what they've achieved is so impressive. The fans have been to Wembley, they've been in Europe - it's the stuff that dreams are made of. Stoke are a model club for a lot of people, they've gradually kept improving their squad without splashing the cash all over the place.
Tony Pulis said earlier this year that Stoke "don't deal at Crufts. We deal with Battersea Dogs Home" in reference to signing players that have fallen out of favour at other clubs. I slightly disagree with that as people come and take the dogs from Battersea Dogs Home and what Stoke have managed to do is successfully avoid becoming a selling club. They've also gone out and made some statements by signing the likes of Kenwyne Jones and Peter Crouch.
There's a great mix of players in the Stoke squad and it's clear that their lads have plenty of hunger. Everyone knew Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington had ability but they had a few little problems along the way and had lost their focus. Tony has helped them get that back. Then there's Jonathan Woodgate, who is relishing being given another chance in the Premier League, while players such as Glenn Whelan and Jonathan Walters have a real desire after experiencing life in the lower leagues.
Their squad may not quite be deep enough for a sustained European assault but Stoke have proven themselves to be quality Premier League performers. They have often been branded a 'long-ball team' but while they can still make that direct approach work, they are not always reliant on Rory Delap's throw-ins anymore. They've got some really big guys - Huth, Woodgate, Kenwyne Jones, Crouch - so of course they can play that way and sometimes they have to, but now the likes of Pennant and Etherington help them play some football as well.
What approach they take against Manchester United remains to be seen, but they will have to be at their defensive peak against the Premier League leaders. You have to fear for anyone playing United at the moment. I'm not sure if it's surprised Sir Alex Ferguson but I know from talking to the Man Utd fans they're amazed how quickly all the new players have settled in.
Phil Jones has hit the floor running and sensational is probably too light a word for Ashley Young. You can see that he and Wayne Rooney just love playing together. I was always like that with Trevor Brooking for England - you know what each other wants, you know where the other's going, you know when t give the ball and when to make a run. They're the two players Stoke have got to stop, the two players who have been the catalyst for taking United on from last season.
The United players will be getting on the coach going down to Stoke knowing full well that it's a potential banana skin. It's a game that they will expect to win, but they'll know they have to defend set plays well, defend those throw-ins and stand up to them physically, as well as being careful of that added bit of flair Stoke have. There will be a seed of doubt and they know Liverpool went there and got nothing when they were on a high and playing well, so it's not like United haven't been warned.
Kevin Keegan is ESPN's lead football analyst