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Fan Focus: Mark Holmes Of Planet Football Talks Stoke City v SAFC

To get the Stoke view on this weekend's game, Rory spoke to Mark Holmes of Planet Football. As well as previewing the game, Mark gives his feelings on Mark Hughes, why Stoke a struggling and underlines the importance of Jack Butland.

At the back end of last season, you said the 15/16 campaign had been an uninspiring one. Is Stoke's bad start to the season a continuation of that or is the Sunderland like start a bit of surprise?

I must admit it's surprised me because I thought we had a good summer and started the season with a really stable squad for once. But then Jack Butland got injured just before the first game! It's no coincidence we've been so poor without him, but certainly up until recently there were no signs that Mark Hughes had done much work to resolve the other big problems we suffered from last season.

Just like Sunderland always do, Stoke are yet to win a game in August or September. What's going wrong, is there anything you can put your finger on?

Butland being out has been by far and away the biggest reason for our rubbish form in 2016, but we've been too easy to play through for a long time now. It wouldn't be so bad if we were making up for it at the other end, but we still aren't creating anywhere near enough chances. A leaky defence and low-scoring attack isn't the best combination.

Are we reaching "Hughes Out" territory? What would you say the split is on how many fans are behind/against him?

There were an awful lot of people wanting Hughes gone after we lost 4-1 at Crystal Palace, and I must admit I had a wobble myself. But he's shown since then that he obviously is aware of the problems and has taken steps to address them.

It was gutting to only draw against West Brom, but we dominated and looked much more solid. We were decent value for the point at Old Trafford too so Hughes has certainly got me back on board. I can't speak for everyone, but I'm desperate for us to avoid the situation Sunderland have been in for a few years of having to sack a manager mid-season and then never being in the position to get someone in charge that's the right man to push the club on and not just keep it in the league. The next three games are huge because the tide will soon turn against Hughes for good if we don't get a couple of wins.

Wilfried Bony arrived on deadline day, on loan from Manchester City. He was a player many Sunderland fans fancied bringing in and I was quite envious to see him end up in The Potteries. I know he's yet to score but how's he been generally?

He clearly wasn't match fit when he first joined and has looked incredibly lumbering, but he had his best game so far at Manchester United. He's barely had a chance to score, though, and whether that's down to him or the players behind him, it's clearly a problem that needs solving.

We've mentioned Bony, who is capable of causing any defence problems, but who else should be worrying our fans? Joe Allen seems to be doing well since his arrival from Liverpool.

Allen has been great for us because we've lacked energy in midfield for a while and he's got absolutely bundles of it. He's not what I'd call a creative midfielder, though, so we're still hugely reliant on Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri to create chances. I've not often raved about him since he joined, but Shaqiri has made a massive difference since coming back from injury so he could be the one to watch.

(ed. note - Joe Allen looks set to miss out through injury - a bonus for us, eh?)

Following on from that, anyone in the Sunderland ranks that worries you?

As always, Jermain Defoe. No matter how well we play, I can't see it being anything other than a close game and would be amazed if Defoe doesn't get a chance at some point. I'm glad Jan Kirchhoff won't be playing, though, because he's the sort of midfielder we've struggled against. Adnan Januzaj is obviously a good player on his day, too, so I have to feel for you.

How will Hughes line you up and how do you think he'll approach the game?

Allen is a doubt so Hughes might have a big decision to make. As I say, there isn't really another midfielder in the squad with his energy so any replacement for him would change the look of the side.

Bojan's a potential match winner, but he's not been in form and is more of a second striker. I'd be surprised if he risked bringing Giannelli Imbula back for this one so we might see Charlie Adam start. He's one of our biggest goal threats but gets stuck in more than the other two so he'd be my choice if Allen doesn't make it. Hughes will obviously want a win, but I think his priority like it has been for the past couple of games will be to make sure the game doesn't get taken beyond us by silly mistakes in midfield.

The rest of the team will be unchanged so: Grant, Johnson, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Pieters; Whelan, Cameron, Allen/Allen; Shaqiri, Bony, Arnautovic.

(ed. note - Glenn Johnson has been ruled out through injury too, so it's likely Phil Bardlsey will play in his place.)

Finally, a prediction please?

The crowd has got a big part to play in this one. If the atmosphere is good again, like it was against West Brom, we'll win 2-1. But if people turn up expecting us to win and get restless if we don't, I can see it being 1-1 or, God forbid, 0-1. Whatever happens, I can't see there being more than a goal in it.

Thanks to Mark for taking the time to answer our questions. You can check out Planet Football on their Facebook page and follow Mark on Twitter.

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