Mixed emotions after progressing to Cup quarterfinals

Posted by James Whittaker

Stoke City Kenwyne Jones penalty vs BirminghamGettyImagesKenwyne Jones scored in extra-time and the penalty shootout to help Stoke beat Birmingham.

Stoke progressed to the quarterfinals of a domestic cup competition for the fifth time in as many years Tuesday, edging out Birmingham on penalties following a 4-4 tie after extra time.

It was a case of mixed emotions for manager Mark Hughes and fans though, as despite scoring four goals and progressing through to the last eight there remains concerns around some of the side’s play, and more worryingly, their inability to close out a game.

The main talking points:

Goalkeeper: I don’t know whether the fans have been spoiled with the form and consistency of Asmir Begovic or Tommy Sorensen is on the wane but planning for life after our current No. 1 took a bit of a blow Tuesday. I appreciate Sorensen hasn’t played a competitive game for a while, but his handling was poor. Given that Jack Butland remains a raw, inexperienced alternative, Hughes will soon find himself thinking about exactly which path he should take if Begovic departs in the next year or so as expected.

-Rann: Stoking the fire at Southampton

Defence: When Hughes arrived, I wrote a piece predicting Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth would need to step their game up under a more adventurous manager. I'm not talking specifically in the sense of broadening their own play -- though that is a part of it -- more that under former manager Tony Pulis it was two banks of four for 90 minutes, whereas under Hughes the back line is far more exposed and cracks are starting to show.

Huth in particular has been suspect in some of his play and not for the first time in the last week played his part in the opposition scoring. It’s a big change for defenders not to have the level of protection they were so used to, but the full-backs and midfield getting forward is key to the success of Hughes’ way of playing. It’s up to the likes of Shawcross and Huth to adapt, lest they be replaced with players more used to a lonelier existence at the back. One such example is Manchester City's Joleon Lescott, who has been linked to Stoke this week.

One player who seems to be enjoying himself in defence playing under Hughes is Marc Muniesa who, when not injured, has impressed from left back with his technique and ability on the ball. He managed to get two very different assists, one a lovely back heel into Oussama Assaidi’s path for the opener and the other a deep pinpoint cross to the back stick for Peter Crouch to head home. Assistant manager Mark Bowen has hinted that Muniesa could see himself given a chance in a defensive midfield role. Given Marc Wilson and Wilson Palacios’ efforts the last couple of games, that can’t come soon enough for me.

Attack: Having seen a complete dearth of goals so far this campaign, the last two games have seen six rifled in as the side appear to have finally found their scoring feet in the new shape. It was a case of picking up where they left off from Old Trafford for Crouch and Marko Arnautovic, who continued their goal-scoring form; both havescored in their last two games.

Crouch certainly seems to be enjoying a new lease on life up front and was perhaps in need of the kick up the backside he got and the post-Pulis realisation of being dropped when he doesn’t perform as well as he should or could.

Assaidi continued his own good form on the left, causing the Birmingham defence problems all night despite suffering the indignity of Wade Elliot’s elbow to his face. Unfortunately he was one who had to play the whole 120 minutes so is unlikely to get the chance to start on Saturday against Southampton, which is a big loss given the impact he has had in his last few appearances. Tuesday was only his third start in a year and while his anticipated absence against Southampton is a blow, Tuesday's game put another two hours of game time into his legs, which will only benefit the side in the coming weeks.

There is clearly a lot of work to do before the weekend and Hughes certainly didn’t hide his disappointment or concern at the "dog’s dinner that unfolded before him Tuesday. The visit of the Saints, the form team in the league, will pose a very different threat and won’t be anywhere near as forgiving as Birmingham.

Thankfully, Crouch and Arnautovic were withdrawn in good time, so they should be fit and raring to go, hoping to make it a hat trick of successive goal-scoring appearances. Conversely, the side will be hoping to avoid a hat trick of games where they throw away the lead and initiative; if they can achieve both of these feats then a much-needed three points is very much in the offing.

Vis Unita Fortior

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