It’s one of the most tired and overused cliches in British football, writes Jamie Braidwood. The concept is designed to separate the strong from the weak. The title challengers from the bottlers. The hardened pros from the overhyped wannabees.
Even Lionel Messi is not immune. Sure, he’s won eight La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues and a host of individual awards, but can he really be called the best player in the world if he is yet to prove himself on football’s toughest stage?
Can he do it on a cold, rainy, Tuesday night in Stoke?
The association between Stoke City and their Britannia Stadium being a ‘difficult place to go’ is one that continues to exist, but the truth is that Stoke’s home record has got steadily worse in recent years. They’re no longer the difficult, physical opponent they once were, the side managed by Tony Pulis and described as a ‘rugby team’ by Arsene Wenger.
While the presence of Peter Crouch and Ryan Shawcross provides a throwback to Stoke’s industrial past, they will most likely line up against Liverpool on Wednesday night with a midfield that includes Xherdan Shaqiri, 5’ 7” and Joe Allen, 5’ 6”.
Last season in the Premier League, Stoke finished with the 14th best, or rather the 7th worst, home record, winning seven, drawing six and losing six of their 19 home league games. In their home fixtures against the ‘big six’ sides, they only managed a single point, in a home draw against Manchester United, and were on the wrong end of heavy defeats to Manchester City, Arsenal, both 1-4, and Spurs, 0-4.
As recently as 2013-14, Stoke had the 6th best home record in the division, winning 72% of their total points on home soil as the finished 9th overall. But in the seasons since, they have shown a steady decline. 7th best in 14/15, 11th in 15/16 and 14th last season.
Even stranger is the notion that facing Stoke away is even harder at night, or rather in a midweek fixture. The idea that as soon as November arrives, as soon as the nights get longer, when the temperature falls even lower and the midweek league games commence, Stoke become an even tougher opponent.
In fact, Stoke’s home record in midweek Premier League fixtures is almost identical to its home record on Saturday and Sundays. Over the past six seasons, Stoke have played 18 fixtures at home on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night, winning eight, drawing six and losing four. Their win percentage of 44.4% is pretty much the same as their win percentage at the weekend, which stands at 42.7%.
With Liverpool set to play Stoke at the Britannia on Wednesday evening, you will undoubtedly hear the same tired and worn out phrases being used ahead of the game. It’ll be framed as a real test of Liverpool’s character, a proper examination of a side who have lost leads in their past two games.
The thing is that Stoke are currently not a very good team. They are currently 15th in the table and have only won three league games all season. Their past two results are also hardly inspiring, a home draw against Brighton and away defeat to last-placed Crystal Palace.
Stoke are a lower-than-mid-table side, and a visit to the Britannia should be treated as such. Liverpool have won their last three games at Stoke in all competitions, and they should be confident going into Wednesday’s game. Regardless though, the fixture will be overhyped as a stern test. For how long will Stoke have this reputation.