The Stoke City manager Tony Pulis has robustly defended his decision to leave nine first-team players at home for the second leg of Wednesday's tonight's Europa League tie against Valencia and strongly rejected suggestions that he will be fielding a weak team in Spain. Peter Crouch, Ryan Shawcross, Matthew Etherington, Jon Walters, Marc Wilson, Andy Wilkinson, Matthew Upson, Dean Whitehead and Glenn Whelan were all missing from the 15-man party that arrived in Spain on Tuesday last night. The threadbare nature of the squad means that Pulis will be able to fill only four of the seven substitute places and one of those will go to Lucas Dawson, an 18-year-old who has yet to feature for the first-team.
By making wholesale changes for such a crucial game, Pulis is running the risk of being on the end of an angry backlash from the 3,500 Stoke supporters who have spent several hundred pounds travelling to Spain hoping to see if the Premier League club can overturn the 1-0 defeat they suffered in the first leg and extend a European journey that started in July.
Pulis, however, is adamant that his team selection is justified and argued that there were no parallels to be drawn with Martin O'Neill's controversial decision to pick a weakened side for Aston Villa's game in Russia against CSKA Moscow at the same stage of the competition three years ago.
"I'll be disappointed if we're not [strong enough to give them a game]," said the Stoke manager. "I don't want to give my starting XI away but it will be a strong starting XI. I've got two or three players who I think I can bring on and they can improve it a little bit. I'm pleased with what I've got.
"I've looked at it and, I'll tell you now, I've got a back four and everyone is a full international, plus the goalkeeper. I've got three midfield players who are full internationals, two out of three forwards who are internationals, I've got a captain in the team who has played for his country. It's not a weak team."
Stoke have had a gruelling season — Valencia will be their 42nd match of the campaign and Sunday's home match against Swansea is their fourth match inside 10 days — and Pulis said that the relentless schedule has taken its toll. "We take a lot of notice of the ProZone stuff and there's one or two there who have been monitored and it's registering that they look empty at the moment, so they need a breather without a question of doubt. And, of course, we've got one or two injuries as well," said Pulis.
Whether the Stoke supporters understand those reasons remains to be seen.
Sue Bryan, a Fans' columnist for the Stoke Sentinel who flew out to Madrid with five other fans before driving to Valencia, said: "I'm disappointed but I can see a lot of Stokies who will be more than that. They'll be up in arms when they hear this. He's definitely given it up then. I'm a Tony Pulis fan and I believe in him but this is disappointing. A lot of people want him out now because of the style of football. If we lose heavily in this game, fans may not ever be able to forgive him."
Valencia (probable; 4-2-3-1) Guaita; Salter, Rami, Ruiz, Mathieu; Topal, Parejo; Feghouli, Jonas, Piatti; Aduriz
Stoke (probable; 4-4-2): Begovic; Delap, Huth, Woodgate, Collins; Pennant, Palacios, Diao, Etherington; Fuller, Jones
Referee: M Strombergsson (Swe)