At this point, Aston Villa are probably just playing for pride. A demoralising 6-0 loss to Liverpool at home nuked the goal difference, and Rémi Garde's men are still eight points away from safety. They've accumulated just 16 on the season.
Next up is a trip to the ever-tricky Brittania Stadium, for a clash against Mark Hughes' Stoke City side that sits comfortably in 10th. Last time out, the Potters eased to a 3-1 victory against Bournemouth, stopping a skid of five-straight losses across all competitions. They hadn't won in a month before beating the Cherries, but may have some confidence back after bagging their 10th league triumph of the season.
Both teams last played on Valentine's Day weekend, having been eliminated from both domestic cups. The layoff was certainly a positive for Aston Villa. First, because this team is dreadful and seeing a loss every week is just downright depressing from a
supporter's customer's perspective. Second, the squad is littered with injuries, and that recovery time helps players like Rudy Gestede get back to full fitness.
Scott Sinclair will probably be called upon to play up top, and the aforementioned Gestede may be rushed back into the team after being declared fit. Gabby Agbonlahor was struggling with sickness, but could make the bench.
Defensively, we could see some changes. Personally, I think Joleon Lescott will be dropped. This either means Micah Richards partners Jores Okore in central defence, or the return of Ciaran Clark. Regardless, I'd like to see Leandro Bacuna at right back. We already know what Micah Richards offers, let's give Bacuna a chance to develop into a player that can perform under Garde. In goal, it will be interesting to see if the Frenchman reverts back to Brad Guzan, as Mark Bunn's confidence must be in the gutters having conceded six last time out, even if it wasn't really his fault.
Carlos Sánchez most likely won't be ready for this one, but Jordan Veretout and Idrissa Gana will definitely start in midfield. A diamond with Ashley Westwood at the base and Carles Gil at the tip would provide some much-needed structure that would plug up the centre of the park, and Veretout and Gana offer the energy needed to play the role of Carrileros, or shuttlers in the wide positions of that diamond.
Veretout and Gana will have more than their share of defending to do in order to cancel out Stoke's wingers. Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautović can do some damage, not to mention Ibrahim Afellay, who will play behind centre forward Jonathan Walters.
The 4-2-3-1 Hughes employs offers a great balance between attack and defence, and they're quite good at defending a lead. The Potters have led at halftime in eight games so far this campaign, and haven't lost a match when they've done so (W7D1). Taking an average of 2.75 points from such positions is fourth-best in the Premier League.
On the opposite side of the coin, Stoke are one of the worst when trailing midway through the match. Eight times they've been behind, and eight times they've failed to win (D1L7). Even Villa have recovered three points from similar positions (D3L10).
Aston Villa (4<4>2):
Mark Bunn; Leandro Bacuna, Jores Okore, Ciaran Clark, Aly Cissokho; Ashley Westwood, Jordan Veretout, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Carles Gil; Scott Sinclair, Rudy Gestede.
Stoke City (4-2-3-1):
Jack Butland; Phil Bardsley, Philipp Wollscheid, Dionatan Teixiera, Erik Pieters; Glenn Whelan, Giannelli Imbula; Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay, Marko Arnautović; Jonathan Walters.
Who would you play if you were Rémi Garde? Let us know in the comments!
*Previously this article stated that Jordan Ayew was eligible for selection, which is false. He will be available for the Everton match after serving the final game of his ban against Stoke. -JG