BRENTFORD pursue a ninth successive league win while Stoke seek to secure their Championship status and EFL expert Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) previews the action here.
Stoke v Brentford | Saturday 18th July 2020, 12:30 | Sky Sports
Brentford have won their last eight league games. In doing so, they have already bettered the longest winning run in four of the previous eight Championship seasons, with only 2013-14 Leicester and 2018-19 Aston Villa exceeding their current sequence.
The Bees need one more win to equal the form of Nigel Pearson’s title winners and two more to match the Villans – but that is not the primary motivation for Thomas Frank’s side, who spy top flight football for the first time in 73 years.
US President Harry S Trueman delivered the first televised White House address more recently than Brentford were in English football’s highest division, such is the ground-breaking, historic nature of the achievement the club look close to.
Standing in their way on Saturday, though, are Stoke City who, after a difficult campaign, are now likely safe from relegation on 50 points and seek to finish the job.
Stoke have recorded top 10 form since Michael O’Neill took charge in early November, taking a respectable 42 points from 29 games.
The Potters have accrued seven clean sheets in 14 home games under the former Northern Ireland boss, who organised one of the best performances out of possession that we have seen in the Championship season back in January, when his side won 1-0 at West Brom.
Their last result was a 1-1 draw at Bristol City, where O’Neill felt his side were superior for large periods and was delighted with the work rate on display.
Danny Batth, who scored the equalizer at Ashton Gate and could have grabbed a brace, gained a lot of praise from his manager for two solid, no-nonsense displays, helping Stoke to limit their last two opponents to just a solitary shot on target apiece.
A big part of this recent defensive success, which includes a 2-0 win over Birmingham, is the work of Sam Clucas and Nick Powell.
Clucas is very much a “system player” who always adapts his off-the-ball work to suit the structural needs of the team: if he needs to press he’ll press, if he needs to track back he’ll track back, if he needs to move out wide to create space for others he will do so – his flexibility is invaluable.
Powell, meanwhile, has been a surprisingly effective presser under O’Neill despite his reputation for being talented but enigmatic; because Sam Vokes, the recent first choice up top, is not particularly mobile, it’s been vital for Stoke to have Powell upping his work rate to close down at least one of the opposing centre-backs.
Both Clucas and Powell went off with knocks last time out but it is hoped that Stoke’s key men will be fit for this encounter.
Brentford in business
Brentford extended their remarkable winning streak on Wednesday night to eight games by beating Preston 1-0; the result, achieved through Ollie Watkins’ early winner, keeps the automatic promotion places well within sight.
It was clever movement from Watkins, who capitalized on yet more creative play from in-form midfielder Emiliano Marcondes to bag his 25th goal of the Championship season.
It was not necessarily a vintage performance, though, from the Bees, against a compact North End side – though perhaps they have set such high recent standards that anything other than vintage is almost underwhelming.
Saïd Benrahma made some skilful, exciting, inward runs like normal and Bryan Mbuemo looked lively as ever, yet both will feel they have reached higher technical standards in other games this season.
The victory was largely down to the control of Christian Nørgaard at the base of the midfield, the organisation of Pontus Jansson, the physical dominance of Ethan Pinnock – and one good save from David Raya, who had to be sharp to tip away Darnell Fisher’s powerful free-kick.
This highlights, once again, that there is a steely efficiency about the Bees that perhaps did not exist in teams they have put out in recent years – and Thomas Frank’s side are chasing down West Brom with menace.
The tactics board
Michael O’Neill often likes to stay unchanged where he can, so we could see the same XI we saw at Bristol City if Clucas and Powell are fit, baring perhaps Tyrese Campbell coming in for Lee Gregory.
On the one hand, Stoke must be careful in this case that Sam Vokes does not get too isolated up top, as was the case at Leeds, because he does not have the pace to carry attacks individualistically.
Equally, a big part of Preston’s struggles against the Bees was not having a reference point to aim for from deep and Vokes’ aerial presence would give Stoke that, whilst they can still pose a counter-attacking threat via Campbell from the right.
With Benrahma so often drifting into the number 10 areas, which are likely to be crowded, Brentford will need Rico Henry to provide width from left-back, which could open up a chasm between him and Pinnock, something Campbell could exploit on the break.
The betting angle
Stoke are 13/10 to buck recent trends and avoid defeat against Brentford, which would all but guarantee Championship football for them next term.
As much as the Bees are in unbelievable form, Stoke have proved competitive in the main under O’Neill and they still have a squad relatively high on pedigree – so this could be a good opportunity to back two outcomes out of a possible three at generous odds-against quotes.
Stoke vs Brentford – Stoke Double Chance (13/10 Smarkets)