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Mark Hughes Poised for Toughest Test Yet

Mark Hughes has done a magnificent job since taking over as Stoke City manager in May 2013. Some feared that the Potters would lose their ability to grind out results after Tony Pulis’ departure. Following 10 years at the Britannia, in two separate spells, the Stoke squad had become tailor-made to play Pulis’ direct and effective style of play. It is fair to say that some had their doubts over Hughes’ capabilities to alter that style of play, especially after he spent only £5 million in his first summer transfer window. However, a superb ninth placed finished displayed the grand job that Hughes had done, and he built on that with another ninth placed finish last season, and a further four points better off.

Last summer was another success story for the Potters, who shed some dead weight and the inspired signing of Bojan was built upon with the recruitment of solid players like Steve Sidwell and Mame Biram Diouf on free transfers. This summer, however, threatens to unravel all the tremendous work which has been carried out by the club over the last few years. For a long time now, Stoke have been seen as having one of the strongest team spirits and work ethics in the Premier League, they do not seem to put up with the so-called ‘big time Charlies’, and rarely seem to have one stand-out performer. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Stoke have been able to hang on to a number of their key players and avoid interest from the countries top teams season after season.

Yet in a markedly quiet June, Stoke seem to be one of the most active teams in the transfer market, concerning both incoming’s and outgoing’s. The first major hammer blow to the Potters is the news that Steven N’Zonzi looks set to reject any deal put in front of him by the club, with Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal all supposedly interested. The Frenchman, who joined Stoke from Blackburn for £3 million is criminally underrated, and was named Stoke’s Player of the Season for the season just gone by. N’Zonzi has handed in a transfer request in both of the last two summers, but with only a year left on his current deal and after his most impressive season to date, the ball is very much in his court on this occasion. The fee of £6 million being thrown about would prove a bargain for any potential suitors.

Further rumors surround the future of goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, who has been linked with both Manchester United and Chelsea in recent weeks. The Bosnian, like N’Zonzi, has only a single year left to run on his contract, although a move to Stamford Bridge would display a surprising willingness to sit on the bench. Between them, Begovic and N’Zonzi are crucial players for Stoke, and their departure would leave a serious gap to be plugged if the side is to maintain the progress that has been made in recent years.

In terms of recruitment, Stoke have finally completed the signing of Spanish striker Joselu. Given that Hughes generally only deploys one striker, it will be interesting to see if he can keep all four of his forward players contented over the entire season. Meanwhile, the ongoing situation with Yevhen Konoplyanka seems no closer to any kind of resolution. The Ukraine star has declared his intentions to play in the Premier League, following interest from Sevilla, but Stoke could still face competition from Spurs and Liverpool for the winger.

I have no doubt that Stoke will stay well-clear of relegation once more next season. In fact, they will most likely remain in mid-table, but the worry is that they will stagnate. Replacing Steven N’Zonzi and Asmir Begovic for reasonable fees would prove a challenge for any manager. The return of Bojan, who should be available come September, will be like a new signing for the Potters, if he can rediscover the form prior to his serious knee injury. As stated, Mark Hughes has done an exceptional job at Stoke City over the last two seasons but improving his points haul in the coming season will undoubtedly prove his toughest test yet.

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