Swans need to mix defensive grit with attacking dominance
THE story goes that Tony Pulis was once so upset by a defeat at the Emirates that his towel fell off during a post-match, post-shower row with James Beattie.
Yet there was never any danger of Michael Laudrup losing his rag following Swansea City's FA Cup exit at Arsenal in midweek.
For a start, Laudrup does not come across as the type of manager who might end up in a dressing-room scrap with his centre-forward.
And besides, the Swansea boss was not frustrated enough to lose his temper after seeing his much-changed team go down fighting against a near full-strength Arsenal side on Wednesday.
Laudrup trotted out the usual manager's line about not wanting to lose any game, and of course he would have preferred victory to defeat.
But he was also quick to remind everyone that Swansea cannot win them all.
And if his team were going to lose any game in this brutal period of fixtures, Laudrup would have preferred the reverse to come in the FA Cup.
Swansea, after all, have done something special in the Capital One Cup this season.
And while it was not inconceivable, to expect a club of their stature to put together another run in the other knockout competition while maintaining their fabulous Premier League form would have been too much.
The FA Cup has more status, but the progress Swansea have already made in the League Cup makes that their priority for 2012-13.
"We have a game next week that the whole of Swansea is thinking about," Laudrup points out.
"We have the chance to go into the League Cup final."
Chelsea is the next game but one, yet it is already in Swansea thoughts.
That is understandable given that Swansea's not-so-grand total of major finals reached in the last 101 years is nil.
Their brilliant first-leg victory at Chelsea means Swansea have a cushion to protect them going into next Wednesday's decisive second leg.
Laudrup's men are 2-0 up in the tie thanks to the defensive strength they showed — and Branislav Ivanovic did not — at Stamford Bridge.
That means they could lose the return game by a goal and still be left celebrating a place at Wembley.
Swansea's advantage is far from unassailable, but they will kick off next week in a strong position given that few sides have threatened to run riot against Laudrup's team this season.
Even at Arsenal, where the hosts were the better side for most of the contest and utterly dominated the second half, it took an 86th-minute Jack Wilshere goal to prevent extra time.
Swansea were a little wobbly defensively in the early weeks of the Laudrup era, when their tendency to concede cheap goals suggested this might be an arduous season.
An example of their brittleness came at the Britannia Stadium back in September, when Peter Crouch enjoyed himself and Stoke helped themselves to a comfortable 2-0 win.
That was Swansea's third successive reverse, and at that stage they looked like contenders for a tricky campaign.
Happily for Swansea, of course, the outlook is much brighter now.
These days they are a much tougher nut to crack and, as well as a place in the League Cup final, Swansea are eyeing a first ever top-half finish in the Premier League.
Stoke are jostling for position with Swansea right now, and tomorrow's meeting in SA1 looks like a clash of two sides destined for a place somewhere in mid-table.
Stoke have become used to such surroundings, having surprised everyone when they avoided relegation in their first Premier League season — 2008-09 — and since made themselves at home.
Swansea are attempting to follow suit, albeit by playing a more patient game than Pulis — like many of the home fans — demands in the Potteries.
Stoke's supporters have accused Swansea of being 'boring' in the past because of their tendency to keep possession.
Yet after spending so much time on the back foot in their last few games, Swansea will be desperate to dominate the ball this weekend.
Laudrup's team showed defensive grit to run Arsenal as close as they did, and their blend of desire and determination not to concede was also key at Chelsea and, in their last league game, at Goodison Park.
The evidence of Stoke's last trip to SA1 suggests there may not be so much defending for Ashley Williams and Co to do tomorrow, and the Potters are not known for bossing top-flight games when on their travels.
Pulis's plan will be to dig deep and smother Swansea — and hope his team can snatch something at the other end when opportunity knocks.
Key for Stoke going forward will be Kenwyne Jones, the in-form targetman who may be back at the Liberty before January is out.
Laudrup wants Jones to join Swansea this month, so the towering Trinidad & Tobago international will be under the spotlight tomorrow.
Swansea will hope Jones, who is keeping Crouch out of the side right now, does not get much chance to impress.
Their approach will be based on stopping Stoke's penalty-box threats by ensuring Stoke do not get into their penalty box.
It is impossible to shut Stoke down completely, and Swansea must stay stronger than they did earlier in the season if they are to repel Jones and friends.
Manage that and they will hope Michu, Pablo Hernandez and the rest can do damage at the other end, even against a defence which can be very hard to break down.
Pulis has one of the best goalkeepers in the country in Asmir Begovic, and two guard dogs in front of him in the shape of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth.
But Swansea have proved regularly in recent weeks that they boast the quality to trouble even the finest rearguards in the land.
If his team can get their focus right even with Chelsea on the horizon — and the limbs are not too weary after another taxing week — Laudrup will expect a similar story tomorrow.
Who knows, they might even knock a few towels out of place.