Wolverhampton Wanderers face Stoke City at Molineux in their first cup outing of the 2020/21 season, the second round of the Carabao Cup.
With a crucial Premier League fixture against Manchester City on Monday, Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo may decide to rest certain key players against Stoke, making an unusual starting XI of the first team and squad players all the more likely.
Stoke, a tough and physical Championship side, are likely to prove a difficult test for Wolves.
Aware of the danger that Wolves pose on the counter with their level of pace in attack, Stoke will likely defend in a low block, not commit many bodies forward while in possession, and aim to keep the clean sheet and win either through a moment of individual brilliance, a set-piece goal or through a penalty shoot-out (if level after 90 minutes, the tie will be decided on penalties).
Wolves are likely to enjoy the lion's share of possession, so creative passing will be the key to unlocking the Stoke defence rather than rapid counterattacks.
Since football resumed after the break in June, Stoke has most commonly used a 4-2-3-1 formation, though manager Michael O'Neill has experimented with a 4-4-2 (once), 3-4-1-2 (twice), 5-4-1 (once) and 3-5-2 (once, most recently) in that time period. So as not to become outnumbered by a 4- or 5-man Stoke midfield, Wolves will probably come out in a 3-5-2.
Former Wolves striker Benik Afobe will not return to Molineux, having recently finalised a season-long loan move to Turkish Super Lig club Trabzonspor.
However, other former Wolves players are candidates to feature, such as centre back Danny Batth, who captained Wolves to the 2013-14 League One title, new arrival Steven Fletcher, who became Wolves' record signing (£6.5million) in 2010 and striker Sam Vokes, who spent most of his time at Wolves on loan in the Championship after contributing as a squad player in the promotion-winning 2008/09 season.
Tactics and formation
In goal, as has happened in cup runs over the last couple of seasons, John Ruddy is a safe bet to start. The Wolves 'keeper of the 2017/18 Championship-winning season has stayed loyal to the club, exercising a one-year optional contract extension this summer. His loyalty will most likely be repaid with routine playing time in the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup.
Captain Conor Coady, a shining example of consistency, would seem unlikely to be rested, however, given that he did not play in Wolves' 2019/20 Carabao Cup games, there is a fair chance that his young understudy may be handed his senior debut.
17-year-old Christian Marques, Swiss youth international and captain of the Wolves U23 side, has improved rapidly since his move to the Black Country in March 2019, being moulded by his coaches to fit the Coady role. With Coady almost certain to play every minute of every Premier League match this season, the cups may give Marques a valuable opportunity to gain top-level experience.
Should Marques be given his debut, he will likely be flanked by Romain Saiss and Willy Boly, ensuring that the defence's levels of physicality and intensity aren't compromised in any way.
However, if Coady starts, Max Kilman would likely start to the left of him, and on his right either fringe player and Wolves veteran Ryan Bennett or academy graduate Dion Sanderson, who impressed on loan at Cardiff City last season.
After the victory away at Sheffield United on Monday, Marcal would appear to be Nuno's first choice left wingback. Ruben Vinagre, therefore, seems the logical option against Stoke.
While Marcal is the first choice in Wolves' Premier League campaign, regular starts in cup competitions will allow the young Vinagre, still only 21 years old, to continue his development.
Oskar Buur could start on the right, after a confident performance in the closing minutes against Sheffield, with Adama Traore rested, or perhaps on the bench. Traore will likely be saving his energy for Manchester City, a team he scored three goals against in two games last season.
The toughness of an experienced Championship midfield and potential numerical advantage depending on tactics will make a setup with three central midfielders the safe option, whether they are played in a flat line in the middle of the pitch, or in a triangle with two in a more defensive role and the third playing as a CAM.
Ruben Neves (who did not play against Sheffield) and Leander Dendoncker, the two most physical options in midfield, will probably fill the two defensive positions, while new signing Vitinha, solid and composed in his Premier League debut, could fill the attacking slot.
Upfront, Diogo Jota, who played as Wolves' main forward through the 2017/18 Championship winning season, is the logical choice to start.
Unlikely to pick up many Premier League minutes at the moment due to the form of Raul Jimenez, Daniel Podence, Pedro Neto and Adama Traore as well as the recent arrival of club-record signing Fabio Silva, Jota's best opportunity to make an impact is in the cups.
Silva seems the most likely option to partner him, as he is eased into the squad before being given a major role in the Premier League campaign later on. As a teammate of Vitinha's at FC Porto, the chemistry between the two will be interesting to watch if both play on what could be Silva's Wolves debut.
Predicted lineup: 3-5-2: Ruddy; Boly. Marques, Saiss; Buur, Neves, Vitinha, Dendoncker, Vinagre; Silva, Jota/
This match will likely be dominated by a battle in the centre of midfield, with Wolves' chances coming either from the wide regions or from creative through balls to the strikers by Neves and Vitinha.
Given the strength of the Wolves defence, Ruddy is unlikely to be troubled too often, and barring any mishaps in set-piece situations, should keep a clean sheet.
Wolves' array of attacking options, including Jimenez, Traore, Podence and Neto in potential appearances off the bench, should secure a comfortable victory for Wolves.