Stoke will provide a stern challenge to Tottenham’s top four ambitions

Stoke v Tottenham, Premier League, March 20, 2010

Stoke 3.46; Draw 3.17; Tottenham 2.07

Tottenham head to the Britannia Stadium for one of the hardest fixtures of the season as they go searching for the three points that their top four rivals have all failed to achieve at Stoke.

Manchester City and Liverpool both drew 1-1 and last week Aston Villa could only draw 0-0 at Stoke. To add a little more spice to the fixture, Ryan Shawcross returns to the home squad following his three-match suspension for a horror tackle on Aaron Ramsey which earned him a red card against Arsenal.

Harry Redknapp’s side have been on a good run in recent weeks and face a crucial four days of their season with the FA Cup quarter final replay with Fulham on Wednesday. Successive league victories over Wigan, Everton and Blackburn have meant Spurs are still in fourth but with games against Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City to come, this is an encounter they need to win.

Two players have been prominent for Tottenham in recent weeks: Gareth Bale and Roman Pavlyuchenko. The left sided Welshman has been in super form in 2010 and was man of the match last week against Blackburn with a performance that ran Michel Salgado ragged for 90 minutes. Pavlyuchenko meanwhile has scored seven goals in his last five games and has even now hinted at staying at White Hart Lane in the summer.

Despite the Russian striker’s amazing form, he is still not guaranteed a starting position at Stoke with Peter Crouch set to be included. The lanky former Liverpool striker is often preferred by Redknapp for away games and could be key to aiding the Spurs defence against the Stoke aerial bombardment.

Spurs have been without a host of midfielders in recent weeks (Tom Huddlestone, Aaron Lennon and Jermaine Jenas) but David Bentley should be available after a short lay off. The central midfield pairing of Wilson Palacios and Luka Modric will have a big role to play, the Honduran is one booking from a two-game suspension and the Croatian will have to prove he can cut it against one of the most physical teams in the league.

Stoke have had an excellent 2010 and are just four points away from the magical 40 to ensure Premier League survival for the second successive season. The home defeat to Arsenal was their only league reverse for 10 games and the Potters fancy their chances against anyone at home.

Tony Pulis has admitted his big dilemma for this game is whether to play Ryan Shawcross: “Ryan is fine as far as the Arsenal business is ­concerned. He has an old head on young shoulders and has dealt with it pretty well. I’m sure the Arsenal thing has gone now, but I am undecided about what defence to play against Spurs.”

It would though be a major surprise if Shawcross didn’t play as he is chasing a World Cup spot in Fabio Capello’s England squad and his form before the tackle on Ramsey singled the former Manchester United trainee as arguably Stoke’ player of the season. Pulis’ real decision is who to play up front alongside Mamady Sidibe. Both Tuncay and Ricardo Fuller are a real handful but both have failed to consistently score goals this season.

Both sides have been well rested over the past week and Stoke should be confident they can damage Spurs’ top four ambitions. The Potters battered Tottenham in October 2008 in one of Juande Ramos’ final games as manager and the 2-1 scoreline flattered Stoke. They also won at White Hart Lane in October 2009 thanks to a late Glen Whealen goal in a game where Spurs failed to dominate.

Traditionally this is a game in which Spurs usually struggle and players such as Heurelho Gomes and Michael Dawson will be particularly important against Stoke’s famed direct style. A fascinating encounter awaits and it would be no surprise if Tottenham failed to take home all three points.

101gg predicts: Stoke 2 – Tottenham 2 (14.88)

Stoke 3.46; Draw 3.17; Tottenham 2.07