Manchester City the litmus test for in form Stoke

Posted by James Whittaker

Mark Hughes, Sam AllardyceGettyImagesStoke City have history against this weekend's opponents Manchester City and now they have their former manager Mark Hughes to boot.

I had almost forgotten how much I hate the first international break of the season, in fact, years ago, I got married in it so I'd never miss a Stoke City game.

There was no anniversary trip away this year though, so I was subjected to a week of tabloids obsessing about an England team doing their best impression of last season's Stoke City. Not that I watched the games against Moldova and Ukraine. Instead I concentrated my attentions elsewhere, opting to flick between the Ireland match - to watch the three W's (Jonathan Walters, Marc Wilson and Glenn Whelan) and the Austrian games to catch a glimpse of Potters new boy Marko Arnautovic.

But the real business of the Premier League is but a couple of days away (hooray!) as Stoke entertain Manchester City at the Britannia Stadium. All of which got me thinking about the significance the fixture has had over the years.

It was back in 1998 when, after a disastrous season for both, fate decided that both would play each other in a relegation decider on the final day of the season. Both teams could in fact have stayed up too, depending on other results on the day, but in the end both were relegated, despite the boys in blue (Man City not the police, though they were heavily involved too) coming out on top and winning 5-2.

Both clubs were banished to the murky depths of the third tier and that was the last time the two club's shared an even playing field; their fortunes varied as Manchester City gained back to back promotions to return to the top flight and the Potters languished in the lower leagues.

Jumping forward 10 years and Stoke were promoted back to the top flight, while Man City became the richest club in the world. Mark Hughes was installed as manager over in Manchester and Tony Pulis set about keeping Stoke in the Premier League, amid almost universal cynicism at their return to the top table. And it was in that first season against the very same opposition that the Stoke players and fans realised they might actually have a chance of extending their stay - beating Hughes' side 1-0 in an incredibly intimidating atmosphere for the visitors.

The spirit that day was indescribable, the players and the fans were one, it was the poor kids against the rich boys and the hill to climb became so much steeper with the first-half dismissal of Rory Delap after an altercation with Shaun Wright Phillips. What followed in the second half was a display of unity I've yet to see repeated as the Boothen End repelled Man City's efforts with a wall of noise that reverberated around the Potteries, let alone the Britannia.

The fans could sense that Stoke were tiring and on the back foot and there was one period when the crowd, as a whole, just let out an almighty roar of encouragement to help the team get over the line. That result and performance was huge and set the side up for a strong finish to the season to ensure the club remained in the top flight.

And so we jump again to 2013, where Stoke fans find themselves daring to dream of a new and better life, having seen that togetherness and spirit all but fade away during the remnants of Pulis reign. As fate would have it, former City boss Hughes now presides over the men in red and white and he is the one who must plot the Citizen's downfall -- his new-look Stoke side is starting to take shape following an impressive three wins on the bounce against Crystal Palace, Walsall and West Ham.

Man City, of course, present a very different challenge to those faced by Stoke so far this season, but the Potters' early promise, coupled with City's stuttering start under their own new manager, should give everyone at the Britannia on Saturday hope for a result.

It may well be that this game takes on its own significance in the annals of time as the true test of where 'new Stoke' are in their somewhat rushed evolution from the sides of old.

Fans will be looking for a solid and committed performance and I imagine the manager and players will be hoping for more of the noise that Stoke fans are so famous for; noise that they can feed off much like that game back in 2009.

If both get their wish then it promises to be a great day and maybe one that sees the revival of hope and excitement as Hughes and his team continue the club's best start to a season and eye up that elusive first top ten finish in the Premier League.

Vis Unita Fortior

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