What's the general feeling in the Potteries about your season as a whole? Some good signings have undoubtedly improved the side and Hughes has you playing some nice stuff but the campaign seems to be going out with a wimper. Is that a fair assessment?
After watching us concede fourteen goals in four games, it's a bad time to be asked that question! But even putting those defeats to the back of my mind I can only describe the season as uninspiring. There have been a handful of exceptional performances - the 2-0 win over Manchester City was the highlight - but the lack of goals has been a real disappointment considering the attacking players we've signed. Points-wise it's still been OK; I'm never going to complain about us 'only' being 10th in the Premier League. But the team has rarely lived up to expectations.
One thing that Sunderland fans are taking confidence from going into this game is the fact that Stoke are shipping goals for fun at the minute. How much is that down to Jack Butland's injury or is that one of a few reasons?
It's certainly been a major factor, but the poor defensive run has also coincided with the return of Ryan Shawcross from injury. My suspicion is that Mark Hughes rushed him back when Butland got injured to add some experience to the backline, but Shawcross clearly isn't properly fit and has been as bad as anyone in these last four games. We've also been without Erik Pieters for the last two and Glenn Johnson for a lot longer so we've certainly been unfortunate with injuries, but there are problems in front of the defence, too. Giannelli Imbula, for example, our big January signing, has got a lot to learn in terms of defensive contribution.
I find it a bit ridiculous when footballers are accused of "being on the beach" as professionals always look to give their all. However, is there a lack of motivation creeping in now that the season draws to a close and some players perhaps have their eyes on the Euros?
Quite possibly. There isn't any one player that's looked so disinterested that I could throw that accusation at them, but four or five putting in marginally less effort than they would do normally can certainly have an effect on a team.
What's next for Stoke? Do you see a push for the top eight on the horizon and is Hughes the man to take you there?
The team was plenty good enough to push for the top eight this season. Injuries have played an enormous role in it not happening, but Mark Hughes also has to take some of the blame. After spending £30 million on two players alone, he'll be disappointed if we can't manage to beat the record points tally from last year. Even if we manage that nominal improvement, it's a big next season for Hughes. I expect he'll get another decent transfer budget so more goals and a real push for Europe will be expected otherwise he might find himself under a bit of pressure twelve months from now.
How's Phil Bardsley getting on? He split opinion during his time on Wearside but always seemed to give his all and he popped up with the odd screamer.
He's only playing because of Johnson's injury, but he's been OK. No better, no worse. He's a limited trier that's hard to dislike.
Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri seem to be the obvious danger men for Stoke, anyone else Sunderland fans should be particularly worried about at the minute?
To be frank, there's not a single Stoke player on the top of their game right now.
On that note, anyone in the Sunderland side that worries you?
Jermain Defoe will certainly fancy himself of getting a chance or two, which worries me. But I fear the commitment of the team as a whole more. If Sunderland press, chase and harry like they did against Arsenal, which I'm sure they will do, Stoke will have to be much better than they have been recently.
How do you see yourselves lining up for the game?
Do you know what, I haven't got a clue. Genuinely. With injuries and players out of form, Whelan and Arnautovic are the only two players I can honestly say I'd be surprised not to see in the starting XI. Literally every other position is up for grabs.
Finally, a prediction please?
Stoke don't fare very well against Sunderland at the best of times so it's hard to feel confident. 0-1.