Martin Smith: The pressure is off ... so let's give Chelsea the blues
WHOEVER said a week in football is a long time, certainly wasn't wrong.
Two clean sheets, two wins and six points in seven days have transformed Stoke from potential Premier League strugglers to near certs for a top-half finish.
We can certainly go into this week's match at Stamford Bridge with a genuine sense of optimism.
For all the solid progress we've made since arriving in the Premier League four years ago, the one real blot on our copybook is our record at the grounds of the so-called "bigger" clubs.
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Take away that win at White Hart Lane when Spurs were not quite the team they are now, and two goalless draws at Anfield, and our record makes for tough reading. We haven't yet done ourselves justice.
But we have the chance to start making amends in our next two away games when we face crisis-torn Chelsea this Saturday and then go to Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-final a week on Sunday.
We wanted to be a part of these big games when we were still marooned in the lower league, and they're certainly coming thick and fast at the moment.
Using the phrase "crisis-torn" to describe Chelsea isn't an attempt to belittle the size of the task before us, or to suggest that we should get a result. It will be very tough.
But if we're ever going to end a run of four defeats from four visits to Stamford Bridge since 2009 then you suspect we'll have fewer better opportunities than the one we face this weekend.
Chelsea may come out fighting, but they are not at their best. A record of three wins in 12 games is why manager Andre Villas-Boas was sacked.
OK, they're still fifth in the table, but they are vulnerable. All we can hope to do is build on our victories over Swansea and Norwich by going into this fixture with confidence and purpose.
We could still lose, of course, but if we approach the match in a positive manner, then I suspect you won't find too many supporters complaining.
But just how Tony Pulis approaches the match will be very interesting.
Against Norwich, we found it hard to make headway against a team who had set their stall out for a 0-0 draw.
Both Peter Crouch and Jon Walters were struggling to get any return from the Canaries defence, and it took a brave piece of management from TP to win the game.
He took off both strikers and replaced them with Kenwyne Jones and Cameron Jerome – a move which injected some extra pace and movement into our play.
It completely wrong-footed our opponents, and we scored our first goal from open play for almost 17 hours to win it.
Norwich were well set-up to deal with our more static forward line and the threat posed from set-pieces, but were caught cold when we changed things around.
A few fans were intrigued by what they saw in the away leg of our Europa League tie against Valencia when a front three of Jerome, Jones and Ricardo Fuller showed a different side to what we might be capable of doing. Their pace and movement caused the Spaniards far more problems than they had encountered during the first leg at the Britannia Stadium.
This has everybody talking excitedly about what TP might do at Stamford Bridge and in next weekend's important FA Cup tie at Anfield.
Do we stick with the tried and trusted 4-4-1-1 formula ... or do we perhaps look to see what happens if we go with something different?
Hopefully we have now reached a stage of the season when we can be a little more relaxed in our approach and not be too concerned about any perceived threat from the bottom five teams.
Having taken 27 games to scrape past 20 points, these teams are not all going to suddenly nail another 17 or 18 in their final 10 games to go sailing past the Potters.
TP is right to err on the side of caution, but he can rest assured Stoke will be lining-up for a fifth consecutive season of Premier League football next August.
Finally, I must respond to those Norwich supporters who were less than complimentary about Stoke, and also to their local media pundits, Darren Huckerby and Dean Ashton, who were just as dismissive.
These ex-Canaries should have been concentrating on why Norwich lost to a team they claimed they wouldn't pay to watch, rather than taking a pot-shot at the only team who were trying to win the game.
As for Norwich fans, don't get ahead of yourselves folks. Everyone admires a team who have recovered so well from being relegated to the third tier of English football, but don't start shouting the odds off the back of one decent season.
Instead, you would do well to look at how some Blackpool fans got a little carried away last season ... and set themselves up for a nasty fall.