Stoke need more defensive heroics to slow down champions-elect Chelsea

Having held Manchester City to an impressive 0-0 draw in their last game, Stoke fans can be forgiven for being cautiously optimistic ahead of the visit of champions-elect Chelsea to the bet365 Stadium on Saturday.

The Potters are eight games unbeaten on home turf, but in Chelsea they will be coming up against a side who have left all others in their wake amid an impressive debut season under Antonio Conte. Of course, Manchester City were a formidable prospect, too, but they also had their vulnerabilities, which is not a slight easily levelled at Conte's team.

Stoke will be buoyed by the fact that they are playing in front of a vociferous home crowd who are always a few decibels louder when the big boys come to town, which often encourages the best from their players. While the bet365 Stadium is not quite the fortress of old, it has still seen the best of a side who this season have arguably regressed from the exciting prospect witnessed under Mark Hughes in his first couple of years at the club.

Stoke are frustratingly inconsistent at the moment but remain a side who, on their day, are capable of hurting anyone -- including Chelsea. The problem is that those days don't come very often, so the smart money would appear to be on a win for the visitors as they canter their way to the league title.

In terms of team selection, there are a couple of teasers for the manager to contend with as he ponders his best XI for the challenge. At right-back there could well be a return for Glen Johnson, though Phil Bardsley would be right to feel aggrieved were he to lose his place following a starring role in his last game.

The picture is less clear further up the field, with the choice of personnel likely dictated by the formation Hughes chooses to adopt. He shocked everyone by starting with two strikers at the Etihad. Having done so well in that game, it would not be too much of a surprise to see Jon Walters and Saido Berahino continue, should a 4-4-2 again be preferred over the usual 4-2-3-1.

The decision to change shape was one that paid dividends on the day and, coupled with the changes made in midfield, brought a real balance to the side. Such was the improved mobility in the middle third that there were always plenty of bodies supporting both defence and attack, and that is a tactic the manager would do well to maintain after such a promising debut with it.

Perhaps the biggest miss from that fixture was Marko Arnautovic, who is set to return to the right-hand side of attack on Saturday. In doing so, he will allow rookie Ramadan Sobhi the chance to continue his fine run of form in his usual spot over on the left. It was from the right that Arnautovic grabbed a brace in his last game before injury -- a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough on March 4 -- and fans will be hoping that he picks up where he left off. Indeed, ensuring a meaningful threat on the front foot will be key to his side's fortunes in a contest where chances are expected to be few and far between.

One player who isn't expected to feature at the business end of the pitch is Wilfried Bony. Despite having done very little to impress during an extended run in the side, is under the misguided impression he should be starting. His latest rant is the second such outburst in as many weeks and will doubtless do little to convince the manager to give him another chance in the side any time soon.

In fact, recently published statistics that show on average he runs the least distance of anyone in the Stoke squad perhaps suggest that he would do well to apply as much effort on the pitch as he is off it to rescue what has been an otherwise doomed spell at the club.

Whoever does start will face an almost insurmountable task, but there is maybe some comfort to be taken from the fact that, unlike those around them, Chelsea are yet to experience any meaningful dip in form.

If, by some miracle, that happens on Saturday, then the players will need to replicate the defensive heroics of their last game while making their chances count at the other end of the pitch to take full advantage. But it's a big "if."