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Why Stoke City Are Now European Football Contenders

05/08/2015 19:45 BST | Updated 05/08/2016 10:59 BST

​There's been a quiet thrumming of transfer activity in the North of Staffordshire this summer, most of it incoming towards the Britannia Stadium from distant areas of the continent.

Yes, there is now something of a more sophisticated, classy and elegant - all of those words you might associate with non-English European football - feel to Stoke these days, far removed from the time when Peter Crouch's noggin was the focal point of the side.

Since Mark Hughes was appointed boss in May 2013, he has gone great lengths to distance his team from the perceived hoof-ball of Tony Pulis. Nobody can deny the effectiveness of Pulis' Stoke, but it was damn ugly to watch and Hughes made his intention to play a clearly different style of football from the off.

Perhaps the most clear signal of the Welshman's intent was the immediate shipping out of Rory Delap, a player whose time in the Premier League was based almost solely on his ability to throw a ball very far, rather than on any technical gifts.

Kenwyne Jones, Dean Whitehead and Michael Kightly followed. The exodus of Pulis stalwarts continued into the following summer with Cameron Jerome, Ryan Shotton and Jermaine Pennant as Hughes went on an entirely different course of player recruitment.

The outgoing players were replaced with, among others, the likes of Marc Muniesa, Joselu, Bojan Krkic, Ibrahim Afellay and the brilliantly frustrating Maro Arnautovic. Such is the scale of Stoke's continentalisaton that they now have as many as four ex-Barcelona players plying their trade at the Britannia.

Do they merely want to see if they can do it on a cold, wet, windy Tuesday night, or are they attracted by the project Hughes has started at the club? A good guess would be the latter.

Each summer has been a building process for the Potters boss, every transfer window characterised by the shedding of the old order and slowly replacing them with technically superior footballers. After a third summer of dealings, Stoke finally look like a side completely moulded by the hands of Hughes - this is very much now his side.

But despite all of the signings and evolution of the style of play, there is a significant element of risk in what Hughes has done with the club. Due to a mixture of budget restraints and players wanting to leave for bigger sides, the Potters have lost proven Premier League performers in Asmir Begovic and Steven Nzonzi, to Chelsea and Sevilla respectively.

England U21 international Jack Butland has big gloves to fill following the former's departure, while Marco van Ginkel is an interesting prospect, but ultimately unproven at Premier League level. But even so, there is still a feel that with all of Stoke's technical, agile attackers, that they will be able to take sides on this season.

So now the boss has the tools at his disposal, it is time to deliver on the pitch and build on what was an impressive campaign in 2014/15, culminating in a devastating 6-1 win over Liverpool on the final day of the season.

It will be a difficult start for them this time around, beginning at home to Brendan Rodgers' new look Reds side who will be desperate to avenge the embarrassment they suffered in May.

Finishing ninth last time around - six points either side of the mid-table pack and the Europa League spots - gives Hughes something to build on. Given the intense transfer activity over the summer, only an improvement on last year's showing will be deemed acceptable.

Their lame exit in the FA Cup last year suggests that Hughes perhaps does not value domestic cup competitions and despite its reputation as a poisoned chalice, he and his side may be ready to make an assault on the Europa League places.

In the modern day, a club like Stoke are never going to be fighting in and around the Champions League, but what they can be for next season at least, is 'the best of the rest'.

Qualifying for the Europa League would be a huge step forward and one would imagine that Potters fans would not begrudge the allure of European football returning to the Britannia.

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