'Stokelona' eyes another upset in League Cup semifinals
04 January 2016, 09:45
Manchester, England — Think of Stoke City over the last past decade, and what immediately springs to mind is a physical, powerful team, route-one football and Rory Delap's long throw.
That's all been consigned to the past during a season in which the transformation of Stoke's playing approach rivals Leicester's rise and Chelsea's decline as the story of the 2015-16 campaign in English soccer.
After dismantling the two Manchester giants at home and Everton away in impressive Premier League victories in December, Stoke was tagged with a nickname few can ever have imagined the team getting — "Stokelona," in reference to Spain's Barcelona.
Stoke has a long way to go to match the level of the current European champions but, in relative terms, there's a comparison to be made.
And it makes the central English team a genuine contender when the League Cup semifinals begin this week with the first-leg matches: Stoke vs. Liverpool on Tuesday, and Everton vs. Manchester City on Wednesday.
The reshaping of once-unfashionable Stoke under manager Mark Hughes, who had a spell at Barcelona during his playing career, has seen former Barca players Bojan Krkic, Ibrahim Afellay and Marc Muniesa join the club since 2014, bringing a new mentality to the Britannia Stadium. The style of play has changed, too, from a long-ball game to an emphasis on passing and possession.
Then there's the creation and blossoming of a lively front three comprising Bojan, another diminutive attacker in record-signing Xherdan Shaqiri and one-time enfant terrible Marko Arnautovic — Stoke's answer to the Lionel Messi-Neymar-Luis Suarez triumvirate.
The change has been startling. Man City and Man United were blown away when they visited Stoke last month, with their 2-0 losses potentially being much heavier. Stoke then went to Everton and won 4-3 in a devastating display of attacking football.
"Compliments are fine and we take them," Hughes has said of the "Stokelona" tag, "but probably doesn't sit too comfortably with us at the moment because we usually slip under the radar and others get the plaudits.
"If the profile of what we are doing is raised, it's what we have to deal with."
Stoke, which won the League Cup in 1972, is up against a Liverpool team that has won the competition a record eight times.
Here's a look at both semifinal match-ups:
STOKE VS. LIVERPOOL
Liverpool's form continues to oscillate under recently hired manager Juergen Klopp, as shown by a 2-0 loss at West Ham that came on the back of solid victories over Leicester and Sunderland.
Klopp's biggest concern is getting the best out of expensive offseason signing Christian Benteke, a big striker with limited movement who struggles at times to fit into the high-energy style favored by Klopp.
Injuries to Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge have allowed Benteke an extended run in the team, although Sturridge could be available against Stoke. Sturridge scored twice in Liverpool's 6-1 demolition of Southampton in the quarterfinals.
Stoke's American defender, Geoff Cameron, is set to miss the match through suspension after his sending-off against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.
EVERTON VS. MANCHESTER CITY
City is still involved in four competitions this season, with manager Manuel Pellegrini seemingly making the League Cup one of his priorities judging by the strong teams he has fielded in earlier rounds.
After a busy festive schedule of Premier League matches, Pellegrini may rotate and has more options to do so compared to his Everton counterpart, Roberto Martinez. The likes of Jesus Navas, Wilfried Bony and Fabian Delph could therefore get starts for City, which won the League Cup for the third time in 2014.
Everton picked up only one point from its last three games in the Premier League and relies on the goals of striker Romelu Lukaku, the league's top scorer with 15.
City won 2-0 at Goodison Park in August. The teams also play in the league this month, meaning they'll be facing each other three times over the next three weeks.