Preview: Stoke City vs. Aston Villa

Sports Mole previews the opening-day Premier League fixture between Midlands rivals Stoke City and Aston Villa at the Britannia Stadium.

Two Midlands sides seemingly going in opposite directions meet in an opening-day Premier League fixture on Saturday as Stoke City entertain Aston Villa.

Under the guidance of Mark Hughes, the Potters finished in the top half of the Premier League for the first time in their history and posted a joint-best points total of 50 last season.

Hughes also oversaw a popular change in playing philosophy, as he encouraged a more attractive passing game compared to the physical style that brought Tony Pulis so much success at the club.

This transition has continued in the transfer market this summer with the arrivals of former Barcelona prodigy Bojan and ex-Manchester United striker Mame Biram Diouf for a combined £4.5m.

Coupling this continental flair with the English steel of free transfers Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell gives Stoke a smart balance and, factoring in the retention of highly-rated goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and return to fitness of Robert Huth, their prospects of another strong season look good.

On the other hand, there is an air of pessimism surrounding Villa Park following another relegation fight last term and a summer during which spending has been stifled by uncertainty over the future of owner Randy Lerner.

Manager Paul Lambert has so far been limited to one cash purchase, £2.2m left-back Aly Cissokho, who spent last season on loan at Liverpool but is unlikely to feature at the Britannia Stadium, having only joined up with his new club this week.

Villa's other recruits, Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Philippe Senderos, bring experience that was arguably lacking from the squad, but have not generated excitement among the club's expectant fans.

Lambert's best piece of business so far is keeping hold of Ron Vlaar, who has been linked with Juventus and Manchester United after impressing in Holland's run to the World Cup semi-finals in Brazil.

Injury has also prevented any significant interest in star striker Christian Benteke, who, along with Libor Kozak, will miss another six weeks as they recover from Achilles and ligament problems respectively.

Cole is also a doubt for the trip to Staffordshire and Lambert's resources are so stretched that he has offered olive branches to previous outcasts Alan Hutton, Darren Bent and Charles N'Zogbia. Hutton and Richardson could start against Stoke, where Gabriel Agbonlahor may be asked to lead the line.

Sidwell, Bojan and Diouf could be handed competitive debuts, but Bardsley may have to wait for his Potters bow due to the consistent performances of Geoff Cameron at right-back last term.

The arrival of Diouf threatens Peter Crouch's place in the Stoke starting XI, although Hughes has stressed that the target man remains an important player for Stoke. Huth, who spent most of last season on the sidelines, could be preferred to Marc Wilson as central defensive partner to Ryan Shawcross.

Possible starting lineups

Stoke: Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Pieters; Sidwell, N'Zonzi; Odemwingie, Bojan, Arnautovic; Diouf

Villa: Guzan; Hutton, Senderos, Vlaar, Richardson; Delph, Westwood, El Ahmadi; Bacuna, Weimann, Agbonlahor

Sports Mole says: 3-0

Who will win Saturday's match between Stoke and Aston Villa at the Britannia Stadium?

Stoke City Manager Mark Hughes walks to the dugout prior to the Barclays Pemier League match between Stoke City and Arsenal at the Britannia Stadium on March 1, 2014
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