By early part of Saturday evening Stoke City supporters were toasting victory after a comprehensive 2-0 win against Sunderland at the Bet365 Stadium.
Indeed there was plenty for fans to celebrate. A first league victory of the season. A first clean sheet in the league for nearly half a year. The first time that Stoke have scored more than one goal in a league fixture in eight attempts. Lee Grant’s rise to stardom in goal. Ryan Shawcross’s return to form. And, of course, Joe Allen’s newfound knack of scoring goals.
Stoke have been much improved over the last three fixtures, draws against West Brom and Manchester United coupled with victory against The Black Cats, easing fears of relegation and reducing the pressure on manager Mark Hughes. However, the resurgence of The Potters has coincided with the omission of the club’s record signing Giannelli Imbula who was left to watch Saturday’s contest from the stands having failed to make the match day squad.
Imbula arrived in The Potteries for a club record transfer fee of £18.3 million pounds in January having signed from Portuguese heavyweights Porto on a five-and-a-half year contract. The 24-year-old Frenchman boasted a reputation of being a young, technical, physically dominant and powerful central midfield player with comparisons being made with former Chelsea superstar Michael Essien. Imbula had been highly regarded in French football having starred for both Guingamp and Marseille, but had failed to settle in Portugal and found match time in short supply.
The midfielder made a positive start to life at Stoke and scored twice in fourteen games, including a man of the match display in a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. The general consensus was that the club had a potential gem in their possession, a midfield player who had the complete package of attributes, and all that was required was time for the Frenchman to settle into life in North Staffordshire and a full pre-season during the summer. When the new campaign arrived, he would hit the ground running and be the driving force behind a Europa League push.
However, quite the opposite occurred. Stoke made a poor start to the new campaign, including conceding four goals three times in their first five matches, leaving the club without a win and propping up the Premier League table. Imbula played a prominent role in those early fixtures and came under criticism for his lack of defensive awareness from supporters who were unhappy at seeing their side conceding goals at an astonishing rate. He was dropped to the bench for the visit of West Brom in late September, a game that saw the visitors earn a point following a late Salomon Rondon header.
When Stoke travelled to Old Trafford prior to the international break Imbula was omitted from the match day squad by Mark Hughes who, understandably considering the opposition, elected to select a more conservative midfield trio of Glenn Whelan, Joe Allen and Geoff Cameron. However, on Saturday the Frenchman was absent from the squad once again and the absence of the club’s record signing from a crucial fixture certainly did not go unnoticed.
Imbula’s Stoke City future is very much in doubt. Whilst Mark Hughes was quick to jump to the defence of the Frenchman this week it is clear that the midfielder currently sits a long way down the pecking order for The Potters. It speaks volumes about his current predicament that Hughes did not deem the £18.3 million signing suitable to play any part in a ‘relegation six-pointer’, and instead opted to call on the services of Charlie Adam.
It is unlikely that either Stoke chairman Peter Coates or manager Mark Hughes will want to abandon the club’s record signing in any haste. Coates, an astute businessman, will undoubtedly want to see a return on such a large investment whilst it reflects poorly on Hughes’ ability and judgement when his marquee signing is not deemed good enough to make the bench. Yet it already appears to be a long way back for Imbula if he is to recover a starting place for The Potters with at least six other players currently perceived to be more favourable midfield alternatives. The only two viable options for the Frenchman now are to redeem himself on the training pitch or look for a move elsewhere when the transfer window opens in January.
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