The race for the Premier League title has never been so fierce, but Mark Hughes is the real winner of pre-season

Grand designs: Mark Hughes hasn't stood still at Stoke

Grand designs: Mark Hughes hasn’t stood still at Stoke

This has to be one of the most exciting times to be a Stoke City fan.

Barely a day has passed by since the 6-1 end-of-season fireworks display against Liverpool that there hasn’t been a paper in the Potteries linking a big-name with these parts, the path from the bright lights of Barcelona has never been so well-trodden.

Ibrahim Afellay became the fourth player to arrive from the Camp Nou since Mark Hughes took charge in May 2013, following in the footsteps of Bojan Krkic, Marc Muniesa and Moha El Ouriachi earlier this summer.

Much has changed since the managerial merry-go-round of the late 1990s that began when not long into the club’s debut season at the Britannia Stadium, Lou Macari was replaced by Chic Bates and then Chris Kamara, before he too was shown the door.

The overhaul proved too great and Stoke were relegated to the third tier on the final day of the 1997-98 season.

Road from Catalonia: Ibrahim Afellay has become the fourth ex-Barcelona player to join Stoke

Ibrahim Afellay has become the fourth ex-Barcelona player to join Stoke

Neither Brian Little nor Gary Megson could galvanise the club until the Icelandic takeover pulled it up by the bootlaces in November 1999. Under Gudjon Thordarson, the Potters won the Football League Trophy in 2000, and two years later, they had achieved promotion back to Division One after two narrow misses in the play-offs.

Stoke’s tendency to see a change in hierarchy as the only means of evolution brought Steve Cotterill into the hot seat following five years at Cheltenham Town, but any sense of a new dawn in the Potteries was given an unwelcome jolt just 13 games into the reign when Cotterill decided to become the new assistant manager of Sunderland.

The slice of misfortune would turn into one of the club’s most important appointments as Tony Pulis then arrived to stave off an immediate return to the third tier, before building a swirl of optimism around the area in his first full season in 2003-04 that was further fuelled by the ambitious Icelandic board.

Tony Pulis paid the price in his first spell for failing to attract foreign names

Tony Pulis paid the price in his first spell for failing to attract foreign names

It would prove Pulis’ undoing at the end of the 2004-05 season, when the Welshman was sacked after a campaign that had seen the club stagnate. The owners brought in the Dutchman Johan Boskamp, who had won three Belgian First Division championships with Anderlecht, but was still relatively obscure.

But another season of mediocre results led to the Icelandic consortium putting the club up for sale, resigned to the fact that their dream of steering Stoke back to the top flight following years in the wilderness had diminished.

Peter Coates returned to the club as chairman, and he found the perfect man who shared a sense of unfinished business in Staffordshire.

Asmir Begovic became a mainstay of Pulis' second era in goal

Asmir Begovic became a mainstay of Pulis’ second era in goal

Pulis had been keeping himself busy on a project at Plymouth Argyle, who had given a good account of themselves in the Championship, but the lure of returning to the Britannia proved too great, and Pulis was re-appointed in June 2006.

Now Stoke had a board that would allow their manager to fully develop his footballing philosophy and this approach enabled Pulis to end the club’s 23-year absence from England’s top table in 2008, where they have proudly sat ever since.

Having only briefly flirted with relegation in the 2008-09 season, Pulis eventually decided to call time on his Stoke managerial career in 2013, but only after having guided them to five mid-table finishes, an FA Cup final and to Europe having broken the club’s record transfer fee on several occasions.

The arrival of Bojan at the Britannia last summer was seen as a coup

The arrival of Bojan at the Britannia last summer was seen as a coup

It left Mark Hughes with enormous boots (or should that be cap) to fill, with the popular belief being that Stoke’s industrial playing style had gradually been counteracted by their Premier League opponents.

Hughes had previously enjoyed a spell at Blackburn Rovers, which earned him a plum job of managing Manchester City just before the club was taken over by the Abu Dhabi United investment group in September 2008.

Subsequent spells at Fulham and QPR had done little to help Hughes enhance his reputation following his sacking at City, and so Stoke was seen as the Welshman’s last chance to prove himself as a British manager worthy of his place in the Premier League.

Pulis’ first spell at the Britannia had ended on the grounds of his failure to ‘exploit the foreign market’, and while Hughes has a solid core of home-grown players built around captain Ryan Shawcross, it is the ambition he has shown in luring the likes of Bojan, Marco van Ginkel and most recently Afellay away from more glamorous European cities that has propelled the club from merely consolidating to far more loftier heights.

In the same way that Bryan Robson brought his illustrious playing career to the table during contract negotiations at Middlesbrough during those Samba days of the 90s, Hughes is revered globally for his achievements with Manchester United.

Steven N'Zonzi has left but Stoke are no longer perceived as a small club

Steven N’Zonzi has left but Stoke are no longer perceived as a small club

Back-to-back ninth places in the Premier League have made a mockery of any suggestion that Stoke had hit a glass ceiling under Pulis, and the club’s recent trip to the Far East only serves to strengthen belief that this is only the start of the club realising their aspirations.

Not even the loss of Steven N’Zonzi, Asmir Begovic and the return of Victor Moses to Chelsea, appears to have had any such sobering effect, with the money re-invested in eight new recruits, and the hope that Jack Butland can now establish himself as first-choice goalkeeper.

While lavish spending at United has done little to assuage manager Louis van Gaal’s fears that his squad lacks speed and creativity going into the new season, there cannot be a coach happier with the state of his playing staff than Hughes.

Rumour has it that Dynamo Kyiv midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko is next on Hughes’ radar, and you wouldn’t bet against him landing his man.

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John Stones is far from the finished article, but it’s time Roberto Martinez made a case for the defence

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If Roberto Martinez was despairing over his attempts to convince John Stones to remain an Everton player these past few days, the Premier League chief executive was on hand to provide the Spaniard a strong starting block.

With the richest league in the world fast approaching its 24th season, Richard Scudamore greeted the media with his now customary defence of the product in light of the nation’s failings at another international tournament.

England Under-21s’ failure to qualify from the group stages at the European Championships in the Czech Republic was high on the agenda, as was the FA’s proposals to increase the number of homegrown players present in each Premier League squad in order to detract them from buying overseas.

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While those subjects are not inherently linked, Scudamore appeared armed with a ready retort, voicing his annoyance at feeling the league had once more become viewed as a scapegoat for the national team’s failings.

‘We get hung up about how they can’t possibly be good enough unless they’re playing for Chelsea or Man United,’ he said.

‘Of course they can be good enough. How are they going to get into the first teams of Chelsea and Man City? Widen your horizons.

‘Why shouldn’t the England team come from the top 12 teams in the Championship and the bottom 10 teams of the Premier League? Costa Rica played very well in the World Cup, and where are they playing their league football?’

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Regardless of Scudamore’s stance, Premier League clubs would appear to have taken heed of FA chairman Greg Dyke’s plans to focus more on their academies, albeit via checking every possible loophole.

This summer has seen the Premier League’s top clubs buying British, with Liverpool bringing no fewer than four English players to Anfield, while Raheem Sterling’s arrival at Manchester City is one of a trio to bolster Manuel Pellegrini’s homegrown quota.

With Chelsea duo Cesc Fabregas and Asmir Begovic set to lose their homegrown status if Dyke’s plans are pushed through (players will have had to have played for three years in England prior to their 18th birthday), Joe Mourinho and his intermediaries are now looking ahead.

The Premier League champions allowed Josh McEachran to leave for Brentford this summer, after failing to break into the first team five years on from making his Blues debut.

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McEachran’s case is one that Chelsea target Stones would do well to note if he is interested in a move to Stamford Bridge, as sections of the English media would have us believe.

The London Evening Standard have been campaigning all week for the Stones move to gather momentum, with Gary Cahill questioned over the nature of his arrival at Chelsea from Bolton Wanderers in 2010, as well as his thoughts on Stones making the same journey to west London.

‘In terms of ambition, if you’re a young player in the game, have played in the Premier League like he did a lot last year, and a big club come calling, it’s very difficult to turn down because you want to achieve the most you can in the short period you have in your career as a professional footballer.

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‘When a top club come calling, who you know will be firing on all fronts with competitions and medals, that’s ultimately what you want to be playing for. It’s hard to turn down, of course.’

What perhaps Cahill hadn’t factored into his line of courting was the stature of the club who currently pay Stones’ wages, compared to both the club he left, Bolton, and the club who have bought three Premier League titles in the past decade.

Nine-time English champions Everton are a gigantic club, where the player who has become the media’s puppet the past week is far from the finished article.

But conversely, Mourinho is right to think that Stones’ price may rise to beyond even Chelsea’s budget.

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With Sterling costing a British record fee at £49million and Luke Shaw setting Manchester United back a minimum £27m, Mourinho’s hopes of landing Stones last week for less than the highest fee paid for an English defender was derisory and insulting.

Of course, the 21-year-old Stones has not yet converted from a £3m acquisition from Barnsley in 2013 to a player superior to what Rio Ferdinand was when he joined United from Leeds in the summer of 2002.

The demand for young English players means they are sold at a premium, and while Evertonians might take comfort in this – and the knowledge that Stones is on a long-term contract at Goodison Park – the truth is that unless their manager and board now shows one of their prized assets how ambitious the club is going forward, Stones has every reason to move south.

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Ultimately, it was Aston Villa’s inability to prevent Liverpool from activating Christian Benteke’s £32.5m release clause that persuaded club captain Fabian Delph to make a second U-turn and join City last week, and should Martinez fail to react positively to Mourinho’s blatant destabilising tactics, there is no guarantee that other members of his squad will not look for pastures new too.

While Stones’ abundance of potential makes him the natural successor to John Terry for England, a move this summer in order to learn from the experienced defender is not something he lacks on Merseyside.

Cahill has gone from strength to strength playing with Terry, but Stones’ meteoric rise is thanks in part to the understanding he has developed in a back four that on its day is a match for any Premier League side.

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That last season saw Everton concede a league-high number of goals via individual mistakes (15) is further evidence that Stones ought to prove he is worthy of a British record transfer fee paid over the next campaign.

His confidence with the ball at his feet didn’t make him immune from culpability at times, but it is to be expected from a player with only two years worth of top flight experience.

While Stones can be thankful for having a manager that encourages such patient build-up play from the back, Martinez can no longer bask in the false perception of his side being a top five outfit.

Last summer saw the Toffees flaunt their ambitions with the £28m arrival of Romelu Lukaku in addition to the long-term contract penned by Ross Barkley, but it’s time for Martinez to make a case for strengthening the defence.

Tim Howard is to return to the international fold with USA following his year-long sabbatical in a bid to rekindle his form up until last summer’s World Cup.

But beyond the set back four in front of the American (Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, John Stones, Seamus Coleman), Martinez is yet to bring in reinforcements for the departed Sylvain Distin and Antolin Alcaraz.

His faith in Tyias Browning, Brendan Galloway and the newly-committed Luke Garbutt is commendable but not enough to put pressure on the experienced but increasingly complacent quartet in front of them.

Time is on Stones’ side, and a move now to become a squad player could jeopardise his place in England’s Euro 2016 squad next summer, but the same cannot be said for Martinez.

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The signings of Tom Cleverley and Gerard Deulofeu have masked the fires he has been fighting to keep hold of Kevin Mirallas and James McCarthy.

The Blues maintained their position in the top eight under David Moyes in part due to the Scot’s manner of driving a hard bargain for the sale of a top player.

Martinez must now show how much he is willing to build his Goodison reign around Stones.

Everton to face Arsenal in Asia Trophy final after shootout win over Stoke

Barclays Asia Trophy

Everton overcame a plucky Stoke City on penalties to record their first win on Singaporean soil, as Phil Jagielka stroked the winning spot-kick to send the Toffees into the Barclays Asia Trophy final.

The Merseyside club, who will face Arsenal after the Gunners beat a Singapore Select XI 4-0, had lost in such circumstances in both of their games at the 2005 edition of the tournament – against the Thailand national team and Manchester City respectively – but in sweltering conditions it was they who kept their nerve to convert each of their five penalties.

Stoke’s new loanee acquisition Marco van Ginkel was the fall guy from 12 yards, as Tim Howard guessed right to palm the Dutchman’s firm strike over the bar, consigning Mark Hughes’ side to the third/fourth play-off on Saturday.

Romelu Lukaku was as relieved as anyone inside the sparsely populated National Stadium, with the striker guilty of missing late opportunities to win the game, first dragging his shot wide when gifted the ball by the opposition, and then coming off second best in a one-on-one duel with Jakob Haugaard in injury time.

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Stoke were without the lion’s share of possession but not penetration in an opening 45 minutes that saw them create the better chances. Peter Odemwingie really ought to have scored when the ball was cut back to him 10 yards out, but the Nigerian side-footed his shot wide of Howard’s goal.

As Everton searched for such a presentable opening themselves, Tony Hibbert was thankful to Jagielka for bailing him out of trouble when Marko Arnautovic robbed the veteran full-back only to be denied a shot on goal by a last-gasp challenge from the Everton captain.

The closest the Blues came to breaking the deadlock prior to the interval was correctly chalked off, as Lukaku rounded the young Danish keeper Haugaard to finish but only after running into an offside position to receive Steven Pienaar’s defence-splitting pass.

Steven Naismith gave the game an injection of urgency that had been absent in the first half, albeit the forward will have rued missing one such glorious opening carved out between himself and Leon Osman, as Haugaard clawed his rising shot over the crossbar.

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Roberto Martinez, who admitted afterwards his side lacked a cutting edge, chose to make five changes at the break, two of whom were new arrivals Tom Cleverely and Gerard Deulofeu. While the latter looked some way short of match fitness, the former showed signs of the deep forays that proved fruitful towards the end of his loan spell at Aston Villa last season.

Cleverley may find his place in the Everton starting line-up comes in breaking up the James McCarthy-Gareth Barry axis Martinez has entrusted throughout his time at the club, but the former Manchester United produced a lively cameo, coming close to breaking the deadlock himself before producing the pass of the match for that late Lukaku chance.

But Everton were not to be denied their place in Saturday’s final as Lukaku made amends with his side’s first spot-kick, which was then added to by Cleverley, John Stones, Deulofeu and decisively Jagielka.

The Tofees failed to win a single pre-season game last summer as preparations for an ultimately disappointing campaign got off to an inauspicious start, but having remained unbeaten from two outings in which they are yet to concede this time around, victory over fellow finalists Arsenal would give Martinez real cause for optimism.

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“It was a good game for both – Stoke and ourselves will have got a lot out of it in terms of preparation,” Martinez said after the match.

“When we got to the decisive penalty shootout, it was good that we scored every single one of them. The concentration was terrific and Tim Howard was at his very best. It was great to see the composure from the players. It’s good now to look forward to the final.”

Everton: Howard; Hibbert (Stones 46), Galloway, Jagielka, Browning, Barry (Cleverley 46), McCarthy (Kone 80), Pienaar (Deulofeu 46), Barkley (Osman 46), Mirallas (Naismith 46), Lukaku. (Subs not used: Joel, Garbutt, Coleman, Williams, Robinson, Kenny).

Stoke: Haugaard; Bardsley, Cameron, Muniesa (Wilson 61), Teixeira; Sidwell (c), Shenton (Walters 71); Odemwingie (van Ginkel 61), Ireland, Arnautovic (Adam 46); Joselu (Crouch 61). (Subs not used: Given, Whelan, Johnson, Diouf, Moha).