Hughes unrepentant as understrength Stoke suffer hiding at Chelsea
Mark Hughes was unapologetic. Unapologetic for the Stoke City team he selected, unapologetic to the travelling fans who headed for the Stamford Bridge exits after just 25 minutes, and unapologetic to the rest of the Premier League.
He was not sorry for anything that happened against a Chelsea team who will not enjoy an easier 90 minutes this season, but the arguments of the Stoke manager will blow up in his face if his team fail to beat Newcastle United today.
Hughes claims he was forced to put all his eggs in one basket by a fixture list that is unfair and flies in the face of medical science.
Already without injured Ryan Shawcross and Kurt Zouma, who could not play against his parent club, Hughes rested Joe Allen, Xherdan Shaqiri and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting on Saturday.
Two teenagers, Thomas Edwards and Josh Tymon, started as Stoke's full-backs, and Chelsea ran riot. Antonio Rudiger jumped in front of Edwards to head the hosts into a third-minute lead and, by the 25th minute, the game was over thanks to further goals from Danny Drinkwater and Pedro.
That was when a number of Stoke fans could be seen heading for the exits. "That's their decision, but it doesn't help us," said Hughes. "We'd love them to stay and get behind us and hope for a change of fortune but, yeah, at 3-0 could they see a way back? Probably not. It was an honest decision from them, but if they paid their money, you'd think they would stay until the conclusion. But I've no doubt they'll be out in numbers again."
These are the travelling Stoke fans who had seen their team surrender at Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, and those who did hang around witnessed Willian, from the penalty spot, and substitute Davide Zappacosta inflict further embarrassment.
Hughes cannot blame the fact his team have kept one clean sheet since August on the list of fixtures or injuries he has to contend with, but he is adamant he had little choice but to prioritise the visit of Newcastle, who are one place and one point behind Stoke. "It's less than 48 hours," said Hughes. "It's scientifically proven that you need more than that for you to recover physically. On top of that, you have the information that you need to give players prior to the game. It's not enough.
"I played back-to-back games. I played on a Sunday and a Monday one year, which was crazy but that's what we do. My point is that it should be the same for everybody, but it's not. Today we had to make decisions going into this game with the view to how we would shape up on the Monday. It doesn't happen very often, but we had issues clearly defensively, too, so I stand by the decision. Some people will criticise it. If we don't win on Monday, I'll probably get more criticism. But as I stand here, it was the right decision.
"We know this period tests everybody, but you'd like everybody to be tested the same way. We take the TV money and the pound of flesh, and this is when we have to pay it back, I suppose.
"I had to make the decision to make sure we were strong going into Monday and let's hope we can get the points.
"With hindsight, if you come and tell me after the game that you shouldn't have done what you did, then I'll have to accept it. But, as I stand here, I am very comfortable with the decision because I know I have a team ready to go, fit, fresh and in better shape for Monday."
Chelsea now have the comparative luxury of not playing again until Wednesday, when they travel to Arsenal. Antonio Conte, too, rested players with Eden Hazard spending the entire 90 minutes on the substitutes' bench in preparation for a trip to the Emirates.
Other than keeping his key players fresh, the biggest positive for manager Conte was the fact he now has Leicester City's title-winning midfield pairing at his disposal.
"One of the reasons Danny Drinkwater is here is because he won the title with N'Golo [Kante] two years ago," said Conte. "I have had the opportunity only today to put them to play together in a two like they were at Leicester. I think it was very positive to see the players that won the league with Leicester."