Belfast Telegraph

Marc Muniesa urges Stoke to build on strong run as crunch fixtures loom

Defender Marc Muniesa has challenged Stoke to prove they belong in the Premier League's top half by finishing 2016 with a flourish.

After a slow start to the campaign in which they failed to win any of their opening seven fixtures, the Potters moved up to ninth on Saturday with a 2-0 victory over Burnley, their fifth win in the past seven.

It is a more familiar spot for a team that have finished ninth in their previous three campaigns under Mark Hughes, suggesting their early-season results were a blip rather than anything more indicative of a season of struggle.

However, with tricky trips to Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, and home games with Southampton and Leicester on the horizon before the new year arrives, Muniesa sees the month of December as a decisive one.

"We are ninth at the moment but now we know we have five tough games against top teams that will show us if we are strong enough to be there," the Spaniard told Stoke's official YouTube channel.

Just staying in the Stoke team is of importance to Muniesa, who had been restricted to only 15 minutes in the league before being recalled to the starting line-up in last weekend's win over Watford.

Hughes brought in five players for that game, switching to a 3-4-3 system, and kept the likes of Muniesa, Giannelli Imbula and Jonathan Walters in an unchanged team that made it back-to-back victories against Burnley.

With Walters and Muniesa grabbing the goals too, it gives Hughes plenty to consider for next weekend's trip to Arsenal when the possibility of recalling Ryan Shawcross and Joe Allen will be on his mind.

"With four or five players, we haven't had a lot of chances this season," Muniesa added.

"Now we are having chances, we are playing well and winning so we are making the decisions for the coach very difficult. But we have 25 squad players, every one can play on this team so it's good for us and the coach."

Burnley boss Sean Dyche had hoped his own alterations would spark a turnaround in their fortunes away from home but they left the bet365 Stadium still searching for their first success on the road.

After the 4-0 drubbing at West Brom in their previous away game, Dyche dropped Steven Defour, Sam Vokes and Matthew Lowton in reverting back to a 4-4-2 and though they came away empty-handed, he saw reason for optimism moving forward.

"We've got to start somewhere away from home," said Dyche.

"We haven't really started but I thought we did with the performance. We didn't get the result we wanted but it was a much stronger performance, a much more recognisable performance from my side about what we're about.

"We looked back to what we are. There's no guarantees with results. I'm not really too worried about the fact we haven't won away because it's a tough division. This is Stoke, look how they've moved on with their squad - you look at some of the players they're bringing in now and the level of finance they're using.

"They are no mugs so to come here and give a performance like we did is a good sign, it's a start. We know we've got to continue that."

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