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Diego who? Morata treble

The Match

Stoke target improvement but Mark Hughes' side must score more goals

Here's a look at Stoke's 2016-17. Mark Hughes has established the Potters as a strong Premier League side -- now the hunt is on for European football.

At a glance

Having seen his side finish ninth for each of the last three seasons Mark Hughes will be hoping that his new signings can help break the previously impenetrable top eight and make an ambitious assault on the European qualification spots.

Quick predictions

Premier League: ​8th
FA Cup: Quarterfinals
League Cup: Quarterfinals

Transfer business

It wasn't too long ago that fans were labelling the current window as the worst seen under Hughes but the signings of Ramadan Sobhi and -- more crucially -- Joe Allen have somewhat quelled that pessimism. There is still work to do, though, with serious improvements needed in the middle of defence, on the wings and up front.

The club appear to be working hard on bringing in Saido Berahino to ease their striking crisis but, with Ryan Shawcross already missing a preseason game with another back injury, the signing of at least one first-team defender must be seen as an absolute priority.

On the positive side, extending Marko Arnautovic's contract for another four years is arguably the most crucial signing of the summer, given how important he was last season. Fans will be hoping that he picks up where he left off but also that a new face or two help take some of the burden from him to make for a more varied return in front of goal.

Mark Hughes is entering his fourth season as Stoke manager.

Key questions

It promises to be an important season for the Potters, who ended their previous campaign with a whimper amid a succession of defensive nightmares and heavy losses. Many are asking whether the manager can find a way to bring some consistency to a side, who only tend to turn up when facing one of the league's bigger clubs.

Having struggled at times to break down more stubborn defences there is a question over whether a new formation and approach is needed. Interestingly, Hughes started all but one of Stoke's preseason matches with three in defence and, despite having little success with it, he is seemingly eager to showcase it at some point during the season.

The spotlight will also be on Xherdan Shaqiri, who will be hoping for a much more profitable season after an underwhelming maiden campaign. His profile and reputation is such that he is expected to be a key player for the Potters and fans are waiting to see if he is able to step up and impress consistently.

Potential pitfalls

The loss of so many players to injury was an unwelcome theme of the last campaign and Hughes will be hoping for a bit more luck. A huge question mark continues to hang over the fitness and availability of captain Shawcross, who missed 18 games last season.

The club have been quick to refute any suggestions that his various back injuries are related but, having never suffered with that part of his body until last year, there is a real fear among the fans that it's a worrying trend set to continue.

Another concern is the failure, so far, to address the lack of goals -- Hughes side scored just 41 in 38 league games -- which was a one of the biggest problems of last season. The pursuit of Berahino is ongoing but, as things stand, Stoke will go into the opening game at Middlesbrough having to select one from a pool of four players, each of whom have struggled to maintain any level of consistency in front of goal.

Should Mame Diouf fail to fire and Joselu Mato not find his feet, the thought of relying on the aging Peter Crouch (35) and Jon Walters (33 in September) is a worrying one.

Marko Arnautovic and Stoke seek to continue winning ways when they face Newcastle on Wednesday.
Marko Arnautovic scored 11 goals and had six assists in the Premier League last season.

One to watch 

Julien Ngoy is an exciting Belgian talent, who chose a move to the Potteries over Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal when he was just 15 years old having seemingly been offered a swifter route to the first team. Three years later, he has been fast tracked through the age-groups for both club and country and finds himself on the cusp of the first team squad at Stoke.

He has been involved throughout preseason and was given much of the second half to impress in a 1-1 draw with Preston on July 23. He didn't disappoint, showcasing his pace, energy and confidence on the ball.

Having made an impression in that game and at the club's American training camp, Ngoy was one of only two Academy players taken to Germany for the club's 1-0 loss against Hamburg on Saturday and was used as a late substitute.

With no youth players coming into the first team since the recently-retired Andy Wilkinson did so almost 15 years ago, hopes are high that Ngoy can be the first of many to make that increasingly challenging leap.

James Whittaker is ESPN FC's Stoke blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @northstokie


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