Sport Soccer

Friday 23 March 2018

Mark Hughes challenges Stoke to end campaign with unbeaten run

Mark Hughes is targeting an eight-match unbeaten run to end Stoke's campaign
Mark Hughes is targeting an eight-match unbeaten run to end Stoke's campaign

Stoke boss Mark Hughes has challenged his players to bounce back from last Saturday's defeat to Southampton by ensuring it is their final loss of the season.

The Europe-chasing Potters are currently ninth in the Barclays Premier League, four points off the top six with eight fixtures left to play.

The 2-1 home reverse at the hands of the Saints followed a sequence of four league matches in which Hughes' men had won three times before drawing at Chelsea.

And he sees avoiding being beaten for the remainder of the campaign as a "realistic goal".

Speaking ahead of Saturday's trip to Watford, Hughes said: "W e like to set targets and raise expectations, and we're always looking to challenge ourselves.

"There is a challenge - can we go from now until the end of the season unbeaten?

"It will be difficult, because we have some really difficult games coming up, not least at the weekend.

"But I think it's a realistic goal, and if we have a good finish, we'll have had a very good season and we'll look back on it with pride. It is there for us if we want it."

Hughes has stressed that if Stoke claim a place in the Europa League, they will fully embrace the competition.

Several clubs have appeared to regard it more as an unwanted distraction from the Premier League than anything else.

But when asked about that, Hughes - who has guided the Staffordshire outfit to a ninth-placed finish in each of his two seasons in charge so far - said: "I'd like to have the opportunity to see it as a distraction.

"Make no bones about it - if we get to a point where we finish in a position to get a European place, we wouldn't take it lightly.

"We'd approach it very much as a priority for our season and see how far we went in it.

"I can understand (the difficulty) when you've got games on Thursdays and then Sundays after travelling. But we would take that inconvenience just to experience it."

Stoke were last in continental action in the 2011-12 Europa League under Tony Pulis, reaching the round of 32.

And Hughes added: "Everybody connected with Stoke City really enjoyed the last experience, and we'd love to replicate that if we can."

The Potters will be without captain Ryan Shawcross and winger Xherdan Shaqiri on Saturday.

Defender Shawcross suffered the latest in a series of back problems when he picked up a strain towards the end of the Southampton contest, while Shaqiri had to come off in the first half of the match due to a thigh problem.

Hughes is hopeful both will be available for Stoke's first game after the Watford clash, the visit of Swansea to the Britannia Stadium on April 2.

A late decision will be made on Erik Pieters, but fellow full-back Phil Bardsley (also calf) should be able to return, while midfielder Charlie Adam has a groin problem after an under-21s run-out this week but is also in contention for his comeback.

Meanwhile, Hughes has echoed Jack Butland's words from earlier this week in saying the goalkeeper is "close" to signing a new contract.

"Hopefully (hesigns a deal) sooner rather than later," the manager said.

Press Association

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