IT’S the clash of Saints v Sinners this afternoon.
Nigel Adkins’ Southampton against Tony Pulis’ Stoke City.
The team with the best disciplinary record in the Premier League, against the team with the worst.
And a clash of two managers with vastly different philosophies and tactics.
Saints are the side that referees have enjoyed taking charge of this season, with Adkins’ men having only picked up 15 bookings in the league.
In total contrast, Stoke have collected 41 bookings and two red cards.
Saints have yet to pick up any suspensions this season, with midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin the nearest with four yellow cards.
Stoke have already seen one player, Dean Whitehead, serve a ban for five cautions, while Ryan Shawcross and Geoff Cameron are banned this afternoon after their fifth caution of the season against Liverpool.
Defender Andy Wilkinson is currently on four bookings.
This is the Potters’ fifth season in the top flight of English football. During their whole time in the Premier League they have won few friends with their tactics and styles.
To begin with, it was their alleged over-dependence on the remarkable throw-ins of ex-Saints midfielder Rory Delap.
Delap, however, has not played a league game this season since the opening day 1-1 draw at Reading.
Yet still Stoke continue to defy their critics.
Last weekend’s 0-0 draw at Tottenham was their fifth goalless stalemate of the season.
Not only that, but it stretched their unbeaten league run to eight games – their best ever Premier League run without a loss.
That was improved to nine by Boxing Day’s 3-1 home win over Liverpool.
Their performance at Tottenham, though never likely to win them any new friends outside of Staffordshire, left Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas describing Stoke’s defence as “among the best in Europe.”
That is some claim.
Stoke’s supposed aggressive and dour style, however, continues to attract as many headlines as their impressive achievements.
Pulis has created something of a seige mentality at the Britannia Stadium during his obviously successful time in charge.
In many ways, they are the 21st century equivalent of the Wimbledon side who ruffled so many feathers of ‘bigger’ clubs back in the 80s and early 90s.
No one liked them, apart from those who always champion the underdog, but the Dons didn’t care.
Stoke are similar, just with much bigger crowds.
The supporters always did their best to turn Stoke’s home ground into an intimidating place for away fans and teams, even when they played at the Victoria Ground.
And Stoke’s style also ensures that opposition teams are never allowed to settle into their favoured routine.
Nothing wrong with that, though, is there?
Stoke are hardly going to stand off and let Morgan Schneiderlin, Gaston Ramirez and Jason Puncheon all the space they need to create chances, are they?
Pulis also believes referees are targeting his own players.
He recently had words with referees’ chief Mike Riley in his on-going battle to win justice for his oft-criticised players.
Pulis told Riley, chairman of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, that too many referees are going into Stoke games with preconceptions about their allegedly aggressive style.
“I have spoken to Mike Riley and given him a piece of my mind on the subject,” said the former Bournemouth midfielder.
“I find the whole situation disappointing week after week.
“Look at the incidents where our players are being booked or sent off, then compare them with similar incidents involving others that are going unpunished.
“All we have ever asked is to be treated the same as everyone else, but there are preconceptions about us that are unfair.”
Though Stoke have one of the worst disciplinary records in the top flight this term, that hasn’t been the case throughout their time in the Premier League.
They only had two red cards and 54 bookings in their 38 games last season, by no means the worst record. QPR, for example, had nine red cards and Chelsea collected 74 bookings – 14 more than Stoke.
Pulis’ comments about his talks with Riley were meant as further ammunition to the ‘seige mentality’ spirit he has built.
Personally, I have no problems with Pulis or Stoke City.
He does not have mega millions to splash around in the transfer market, and he does not answer to a fanbase who expect his side to pass the ball around like Barcelona.
I am sure there are Stoke fans who would prefer Pulis to build a side that is more attractive to watch.
Equally, I am convinced there are many who love the fact that their unglamorous club from the unglamorous Potteries are continually proving their critics wrong.
It was ever thus.
In Nick Hornby’s seminal book ‘Fever Pitch’ he recounts the tale from September 1980 when Stoke, under Alan Durban, produced a dour display at Highbury.
When pressed afterwards by journalists on his club’s unambitious approach to the game, Durban hit out: “If you want entertainment, go and watch clowns.”
His main job as Stoke boss wasn’t to play fancy football, it was to keep the club in the old First Division.
Much has changed in the last 32 years, but Durban’s quip rings as true now as the day he uttered it.
Pulis is 100 per cent right when he says Stoke’s first aim each season is to stay up.
It looks already as if the Potters will be in the top flight for a sixth successive term in 2013/14.
Offer six straight years of top flight football, and Murdoch’s millions, to Saints fans at this moment and time and they will bite your hand off.
There are different ways to stay up, and some are obviously more aesthetically pleasing than others. Tony Pulis has found a way that perfectly suits his club.
Nigel Adkins will be as confident his philosophies and tactics suit Southampton.
Neither is right or wrong.
In the Premier League, staying up is everything and the end perfectly justifies the means.