Hughes, Stoke out to conquer bogey ground, the Stadium of Light

Mark Hughes and his Stoke side will be keen to put the shambles of their last game firmly behind them by taking all three points from their visit to relegation-haunted Sunderland.

Their untimely exit from the FA Cup following the embarrassing 2-0 loss to local rivals Wolves is still fresh for the fans who are expecting a suitable response given that it's one of the league's perennial bottom dwellers up next and not a more daunting prospect. In fact, this season the Potters have only managed to beat sides towards the foot of the table with the average position of those opponents being 16th in the league; so there's at least some optimism of a positive result.

Unfortunately, that hope is tempered by the fact that the Stadium of Light has been a bogey ground for them in recent years. Indeed, the hosts have not lost to Stoke there in any of their last 14 meetings which makes for grim reading for those making the lengthy trip to Wearside.

It remains to be seen what team Hughes decides on amid a lack of consistency when it comes to selecting his starting XI. It's fair to suggest that the ones chosen for the last clutch of Premier League fixtures are not the best available to him and it's a situation that has led to significant unrest among the fan base.

That's not to suggest that he should always select his best players as that won't always be ideal given the range of challenges they will need to overcome. That said, the apparent haste with which he has turned to the older, less mobile players, as well as the tactics better known under his predecessor who bought them -- Tony Pulis -- is curious.

One of those -- Peter Crouch -- is expected to continue up top following Bojan Krkic and Co.'s failure to grasp their rare opportunity to impress against Wolves which, in all likelihood, points to a start for Charlie Adam, too. The Scot is one who usually accompanies the big man onto the pitch, as it is more often than not, he who is charged with finding Crouch's head with his varied range of passing.

Another question that fans will be asking is whether or not they will play in their more recent shape of a 3-4-3 or revert back to a tried and tested 4-2-3-1. Neither are best suited to Crouch's unique strengths and as such the smart money will not be on a goal-fest either way.

There's still more than enough talent to overcome an increasingly despondent Sunderland side, though, and if it is Crouch who features then he must be ably supported in the final third. Long-term absentee Ibrahim Afellay appears to have quickly found favour following his return to the fold and in the absence of Mame Diouf (African Nations Cup) and Jon Walters (injury), the Dutchman could well find himself over on the right as a wing-back. Marko Arnautovic will more than likely start more advanced and over on the left but it's important that they are not the only creative options at the business end of the pitch.

In terms of threats that the hosts have, it's not unfair to suggest they almost solely fall to the feet of Jermain Defoe, who at the ripe old age of 34 continues to terrify top flight defences. He needs just one chance to hit the back of the net so the defenders will need to be switched on at tall times in order to deny him his 12th goal of the campaign.

The reverse fixture -- a 2-0 Stoke win on Oct. 15th -- was a significant game as it came at a point when the Potters were struggling to get their first win of the season and this latest meeting feels similar in the context of continued discontent.

Much like on that occasion, the manager goes into this game under considerable pressure from those in the stands and rightly so having presided over a desperately underwhelming year at the club. He'll be hoping for another win to buy him some goodwill but will need to supplement any result with some hard work in the transfer market to fill one or two gaping holes.

In that respect it promises to be a busy month for Hughes but the hot topic of conversation at the moment is does he still deserve to be here at the end of it?