Stoke City are facing something of a defensive selection crisis ahead of their final Premier League outing of 2017 against Chelsea on Saturday (30 December), with three senior centre-backs set to miss the trip to Stamford Bridge.
Kurt Zouma, who returned to action earlier this month following a hamstring problem, is unavailable to feature against his parent club per the terms of a season-long loan deal and Bruno Martins Indi is not expected to return for another two-and-a-half weeks after groin damage that saw him stretchered off during the second half of the 2-1 win over Swansea City on 2 December.
To make matters worse for under-pressure Stoke manager Mark Hughes, Ryan Shawcross now looks set to be out until the New Year.
The influential captain lasted for only 32 minutes of the feisty 1-1 draw at Huddersfield Town on Boxing Day – a match that saw Ramadan Sobhi’s second-half equaliser cancel out an early opener from Tom Ince – due to a calf complaint.
“We think it’s a calf strain,” Hughes was quoted as saying by the Stoke Sentinel. “It might be that he’s got a kick on it and got a spasm, but that’s the best-case scenario if we are being honest.
“But the reality is he’s done some damage to the calf and will be unavailable, which emphasises our lack of defensive cover at the moment because Kurt Zouma is unavailable against his parent club (Chelsea).”
That triple absence will come as a crushing blow to a porous Stoke defence that have conceded three more goals than any other team so far (41) this season, kept just two clean sheets and won only one of their first 10 away matches.
The likes of Kevin Wimmer, versatile American Geoff Cameron and youngsters Tom Edwards and Josh Tymon will be expected to deputise against a third-place Chelsea team that recently sealed their sixth straight home top-flight victory over Brighton & Hove Albion thanks to headers from Alvaro Morata and Marcos Alonso.
Antonio Conte’s in-form side have not lost a game in front of their own supporters since 30 September, when they were toppled by runaway leaders Manchester City.
Fielding lesser-spotted former Blues defender Glen Johnson at centre-back is another – albeit highly unlikely – option for Hughes, who could be boosted by the return of regular left-back Erik Pieters following a hip problem.
Long-term absentee Stephen Ireland has not played for Stoke since breaking his leg in May 2016, and Paris Saint-Germain loanee Jese Rodriguez, disciplined internally after leaving the bench early against Swansea, is said to be working on his fitness after returning from Gran Canaria, where he was visiting his ill son.
“We might be able to get Erik Pieters back at the weekend, but that would be touch and go,” Hughes added.
Chelsea are expected to remain without David Luiz (knee) and Charly Musonda (groin) for the visit of Stoke to West London, although centre-back Andreas Christensen could feature again after missing the Brighton win through illness.