The Championship battle for survival has heated up over the past few weeks, with just six points separating bottom of the league Luton Town and eighteenth place Charlton Athletic.
This week the fixture list pits two relegation rivals against each other with an intriguing clash at Kenilworth Road.
Stoke City travel south having failed to distance themselves from the drop zone under Michael O’Neill. The Northern Ireland manager took over from Nathan Jones back in November, and despite an undoubted upturn in form, the Potters have been unable to find consistency all season.
As for Luton, after a promising start faded, Greame Jones’ side have been in or around the bottom three for the majority of season. However, despite currently sitting bottom of the table, the Hatters have outlived preseason expectations by fighting bravely against relegation and still within a chance of survival in the final stages of the season.
A win for Luton at the weekend will move them two points behind opposition Stoke, who could see themselves drop inside the bottom three if they fail to find all three points.
With three wins in their last four outings, Luton will count themselves as unlucky to be bottom of the pile.
Their result midweek was one of the shocks of the season as they dispatched promotion hopefuls Brentford with ease. The game finished 2-1 with two first half goals enough to see off a late comeback from the Bees.
Previously, the Hatters fell 3-1 to Charlton Athletic, yet they had won two on the bounce beforehand against Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough.
Whilst the odds are against Luton to survive, their current form coupled with fixtures against all three sides immediately above them in the table means hope remains at Kenilworth Road.
Stoke City are searching for a third game unbeaten with their trip to Luton, having achieved a 0-0 draw against one of the divisions inform sides Blackburn Rovers in midweek.
The previous weekend, the Potters picked up all three points at home to Cardiff City with a 2-0 victory. However, the issue for Stoke this season is putting together a consistent run of form. O’Neill’s side have only gone three games unbeaten once this season, with only Luton losing more games than the Staffordshire side this campaign.
The relegation battle is fully in Stoke’s hands. Five of their next six fixtures see them face sides inside the bottom eight, a strong performance over the next months and Stoke could easily see themselves away from drama on the later stages of the season.
For the home side, creative midfielder Izzy Brown is a doubt. As is defender Sonny Bradley and winger Kazenga LuaLua.
Stoke remain without Ryan Shawcross and Stephen Ward, with James McClean expected to be on the side lines for several weeks due to a knee injury.
What to Expect
Luton’s record of seventy goals conceded is by far the worst in the division and with just three clean sheets all season, you can expect Stoke to find the net at some point.
With both sides averaging below 50% possession over the course of the season, it’s likely play will be split evenly between the two teams.
Stoke opt to play more direct football, averaging seventy-six long balls per game, the fourth most in the division. With this in mind, Luton may find themselves on the back foot, as their record of seventeen aerial duels won per game is the third worst in the division.
Furthermore, Luton average ten shots per game, the second least in the Championship and thus will have to be effective in front of goal if they are to defeat their relegation rivals.
Striker James Collins has played in every game for Luton this season having finished League One top scorer last campaign. The Republic of Ireland international is the Hatters leading goalscorer this season with ten and his physical presence up top will be vital in the battle against Stoke at the weekend.
Luton’s midweek defensive display in midweek was rightfully praised for keeping out the divisions leading scorers Brentford. If Stoke are to breakdown the Hatters solid backline, Nick Powell’s creativity could be key. The former Manchester United man has two goals and four assists from his thirteen starts this season and has started to excite the Stoke faithful in recent weeks.