Commentary

Stoke isn't what we thought

Updated: September 26, 2011, 4:26 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

It took Andy Gray's famously xenophobic line last year to finally give voice to what everyone knew but lacked the Barton-esque audacity to publicly express: Britannia Stadium isn't a place for teams (like those tika-taka maestros from Barcelona) that don't care for the sound of cleats raking against bone.

[+] EnlargePeter Crouch
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesAir Time: Peter Crouch uses Darren Fletcher for support as he jumps up to head the ball.

Saturday it was Manchester United's turn to experience the shin music, an uncompromising melody that squarely knocked off Liverpool two weekends ago and had caused Chelsea fits on the Prem's opening weekend. While Sir Alex Ferguson's teams are known for their battling intensity, the loss to injury of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez (after 11 minutes) was keenly felt. Still, based upon their blistering form and the initial Nani scurry-and-sidefoot goal, you would have been hard-pressed to find a neutral who didn't think the Red Devils would contrive a way to sweep up the three points as easily as Rory Delap launches his exocet throws into the mosh pit that is the opponent's penalty area.

Then again, people and pundits (and I am both last time I checked) have been buying Tony Pulis's poor-mouthing of his Stoke City side for so long that we've been blinded to the reality that the Potters are considerably better than the old-school cloggers their manager portrays them as. Stoke may still be a throwback to the days when players wore black instead of pink boots, but it no longer just uses them to kick opponents up in the air. In recent years, it has allied just enough skill to its scraping and scrapping approach to play some good soccer. Add to that the Us vs. Them mentality that Pulis has imbued in the Potters and you have a team playing with unshakeable self-belief.

"In all the clubs I've played at," the well-traveled Peter Crouch told the British press after the match, "I've never known a team spirit like this one."

While the city of Stoke makes Seattle look like a sunny seaside resort, the light of seventh place is now illuminating its performances. If its run to last year's FA Cup final wasn't eye-opening enough, its swoop for Crouch and its recent positive displays in Europe should act as a flare signal to the rest of the top-flight sides that this is a team to be reckoned with. The only part of Pulis that is remotely speed oriented is the uber-chic tracksuit that he sports on the sidelines. He has built the anti-Blackpool -- a gritty, hard-working squad designed to harry and pressure opponents all over the field with welt-producing zeal -- and if some teams cower in the face of his side's relentless aggression, so much the better.

Though forced by Rooney's dodgy hamstring (injured in training Friday) and Chicharito's dead leg to dust off Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov for Saturday's match, United was essentially the same team that had notched 22 goals in just six games. When Nani scored one of his hate-to-love-it golazos, I thought that Fortress Britannia would crumble into the same dust pile as had all three of United's London-based opponents: Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs.

But even down 0-1, Stoke rolled up its sleeves and got to work. And if Peter Crouch hadn't regressed to being, well, Peter Crouch and missed a sitter after his emphatically headed equalizer, Pulis' men would have taken all three points.

Which begs the question: How did the Potters get this good?

• They've slowly diversified since joining the Prem: In addition to Delap's monster throws, Stoke boasts jet-heeled wingers such as Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant. The addition of Crouch's loping, aerial-ready physique provides the pair with an endpoint worthy of their abilities.

[+] EnlargeNani
AP Photo/Jon SuperNani put United ahead, but the Red Devils ultimately saw their perfect record vanish with a 1-1 tie at Stoke.

• They're actually not as "dirty" as you'd think: Sure, Ryan Shawcross' ugly, Aaron Ramsey-shearing tackle will never be forgiven by Gooners, and Stoke did finish 13th in last season's fair play table, but it was still comfortably ahead of such perceived "skill" teams as Arsenal and Manchester City.

• In Shawcross and Robert Huth, they have the most fear-inducing center-back pairing in the league:There should be a shingle hanging from goalkeeper Amir Begavic's crossbar noting "Thou Shalt Not Pass Unless Thou Wants To End Up In Hospital." And if one of the big two is out, either on suspension or a daytrip to throw old ladies into the river, they now have suitably venomous cover in Jonathan Woodgate, who was in the middle of Saturday's biggest talking point. Starting in place of Huth, the floppy-haired former Spurs and Real Madrid defender waited all of four minutes before ramming Chicharito into Begovic. Instead of a deserved penalty, Little Pea hobbled off injured and neither Berbs nor Owen spent much quality time alone in the penalty area thereafter.

• They have money: While Pulis pulls off his working-class mantra, a recent article in the Guardian noted that they are owned by a UK-based betting conglomerate that simply passes down subsidies with virtually nonexistent interest payments attached. This financial arrangement is why Stoke has been able to lure such ex-England internationals as Crouch, Pennant, Woodgate and Matthew Upson to the Britannia over the past couple of seasons, while more established mid-table sides such as Sunderland and Aston Villa have settled into their role as United farm teams.

Stoke is not going the way of yo-yoing between Prem heaven and Championship purgatory like Hull City, Portsmouth or West Ham. Rather than suffering from a letdown, this is a team poised to be a threat to anybody it plays. It's high time for us to look past the Potters' thuggish reputation and focus on their results.

The Trouble With Fernandy Carroll

Fernando Torres, Andy Carroll and Luiz Suarez will be forever linked in what passes for the elephantine memories of Reds supporters. I have Liverpool-loving friends who can still conjure up in the most excruciating detail imaginable the time Kenny Dalglish scored a sublime chest-and-volley at Stamford Bridge to secure the 1986 league and cup double.

[+] EnlargeTorres
Clive Rose/Getty ImagesFernando Torres is shown the door after a reckless, two-footed tackle.

So it's no surprise to note that members of the Kop haven't exactly forgiven Torres. Instead of opting for a Men in Black-like brain wipe, they're content to wallow in the searing pain of his abandonment the best way they know how -- by constantly mocking his Blue period with Chelsea while ignoring what they bought with Roman Abramovich's black gold money.

January to August was a fine vintage for Liverpool sour grapes as El None-O transcended bad, but now it increasingly appears that latest-manager-in-the-Roman-Abramovich-firing-line, Andre Villas-Boas, is closing in on a formula -- a steady diet of Juan Mata through balls -- to resurrect Torres's goal-scoring talent threatens to turn Reds fans' cynical delight back into despair. The latest example of the Chelsea striker's burgeoning resurgence was evident in the 29th minute of Saturday's game against Swansea City, when he executed a classic trap-spin-score move from Mata's clever lofted pass. In fact, unless they were wired into the radio coverage of the Chelsea game, most Liverpool supporters were busy studiously ignoring the reality that Torres had scored a goal in his second consecutive game or had teed up Ashley Cole for Ramires to slot home the Blues' second.

But as soon as he made the kind of brainless, over-zealous, two-footed lunge on the Swans' Mark Gower that is expected more from the Lee Cattermoles of this world than European Championship-winning strikers, the Anfield PA was quick to alert the Liverpool faithful that Torres had been dismissed in the 39th minute. The announcement was greeted with a hearty roar from Reds fans still eager to gulp from the sippy cup of the Spaniard's misery.

But what about the player on whom Dalglish spent so much of the Torres treasure -- the other half of the out-and-in equation? While El Nino can say he did something meaningful with his weekend -- a goal and an assist in less than a full half of soccer -- what can Fernando's Merseyside replacement, Carroll, state in response? We can see Torres slowly growing in confidence and self-belief, but the lumbering, greasy-haired Liverpool front man still seems uncertain as to how to fit his very specific skill set (heading perfectly weighted balls that land directly on his forehead in the general vicinity of the goal) into the Reds' mosaic that King Kenny is still assembling.

It must surely have occurred to the young striker that Craig Bellamy, a man brought in on deadline day via a free transfer, looked much more in sync with the dynamic Suarez midweek than Carroll has since signing with Liverpool in January. Granted, Bellamy and the Uruguayan were romping against second-tier Brighton & Hove Albion in the Carling Cup, but are the Seagulls really that much of a drop in quality from Wolverhampton Wanderers? Carroll trails Torres in the Misfiring Striker Seeking Redemption Sweepstakes by 0-2 and no amount of the verbal cover that Dalglish unfurls above Carroll's carefully coiffed cranium to fend off the media in his striker's defense can ultimately protect him from the Prem's most dominant lingua franca for a striker: goals.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."

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