Robbie Earle: Potters could be facing toughest Premier campaign yet
NO-ONE'S coined the phrase "fifth-season syndrome" yet, but Stoke City could face their toughest campaign in the Premier League when the action kicks-off again in August.
I think City have enough quality in the squad and Tony Pulis has enough expertise to keep City up for a fifth season running. However, they shouldn't take survival for granted in what is already shaping up to be one of the most competitive campaigns for years.
For starters, I wouldn't be surprised if new boys Southampton, Reading and West Ham emulate last season's trio of promoted clubs, QPR, Norwich and Swansea by all staying up.
Reading have recent experience of the Premier and, like Southampton, have enough talent to feel they can emulate Swansea and Norwich.
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As for West Ham, I expect the owners to help Sam Allardyce make them very competitive.
That leaves the next group of clubs awaiting the campaign a little nervously. And as they finished 14th last season, that group includes Stoke City.
The good news for the Potters is that they won't have to cope with the Europa League, which I am sure took its toll on their Premier League form last season.
I know City's league results were better in the first half of the season when they played the majority of their European games.
But I think the effects of that schedule eventually caught up with them in the final two or three months of the campaign.
The key for Tony Pulis is to work out how to recapture the "us-against-the-world" spirit which seemed absent at times last season.
In Stoke's first campaign in the Premier League, every game was a big match as Stoke fans made the Britannia Stadium the most intimidating arena in the top-flight.
I'm sure that's still the case when the big boys are in town, but I'm not sure it's the same when the likes of Wigan, Fulham and Swansea are the visitors.
In some ways that is inevitable. In fact, the novelty of the Premier League will have worn off for some players as well as fans.
It's like when you get a new pair of shoes. Great when you first wear them, but after a while they are just another pair of shoes. The problem for Tony is that, if he spends his press conferences talking up the likes of Wigan, no-one will really be listening.
That can happen in the dressing room too, as players become a little complacent.
That's where the manager needs his strong characters, so I'm not surprised he's kept on Rory Delap even though he will be 36 when the new season kicks off.
Rory still has plenty to offer on the pitch, so he's not just there as a glorified cheerleader. Having strong characters in the dressing room can be the difference between staying up and going down.
And I'm not particularly surprised Mama Sidibe's been offered a new contract, despite being out of action through injury for two years.
If Sidibe can get fit, Pulis will have a great professional whose attitude in training will be spot on and who won't mind being a substitute, even if it means just playing 30 minutes here or there.
In a squad of 25, there's nothing wrong with having a player like that.
It remains to be seen whether Michael Owen will be on Stoke's books next season after Peter Coates said they could go back in for the striker having failed to land him three years ago.
I can see a deal happening if Owen is prepared to sign a contract heavily based on appearances, but City would also have to change the way they play a little with him in the team.
His strength is running in behind defenders rather than getting on the end of big, long crosses, so Stoke would need a bit more creativity in midfield to get the best out of him.
STOKE will get a decent workout, as well as the chance to sell replica shirts on their pre-season tour to the United States.
Their games against Columbus Crew, Orlando City and Sporting Kansas City will provide decent opposition, especially the two MLS sides Columbus and Kansas.
Stoke should be better technically, but the American teams will be well into their season so there will be no question of them being off the pace.
Kansas are a bit like Stoke in style because they put people under pressure and get the ball forward quickly to some big, athletic forwards.
I'm based in the United States so I know there will be plenty of interest over here because the Premier League is so popular.
The crowds also know their "soccer" as we are into the first generation who have really grown up with the game.
It's a bit different to a few years ago when a player could hoof the ball 50 yards into touch and get applauded because some people thought that was what he was trying to do.
There is plenty of noise and colour in games over here, but maybe the atmosphere lacks a little of the intensity found in British games.
However, I'm sure the Stoke players and fans will have a trip to remember.