TONY Pulis has defended his controversial decision to opt for Peter Crouch over Kenwyne Jones in attack for most of the season.
The former England striker looks odds-on to continue in attack against Aston Villa at the Britannia Stadium tomorrow (3pm) – despite a run of just one goal in his last 25 appearances for the club.
And that will rankle with those demanding a start for Jones because of his greater physical presence against Villa's much-maligned defence.
Jones enjoyed a scoring run in December with three goals in four starts, before losing his place in the starting line-up once Crouch returned from injury.
Pulis, ever reluctant to criticise either player, would only say: "You pick a team you think will do well and I thought Peter linked the play brilliantly for us at Everton."
Pulis was more intent on concentrating on his team as a whole and easing the pressure on them as they prepare to step into the cauldron of what many see as a six-pointer tomorrow.
For victory catapults Stoke seven points clear of Villa and the relegation zone – but defeat could leave them sitting on as little as a one-point advantage over the bottom three in the closing stages of the campaign.
"People say this is the crunch game," said the Stoke boss, "but we have seven games left to get six points to reach 40.
"I'm working my socks off to make sure the team don't feel any pressure.
"We are at home and the players realise that if they put in a hard-working shift, then they will have the backing of 25,000 people."
He acknowledges the concerns and unrest among fans and media alike, but insists he can take that in his stride as long as it doesn't affect his players.
"There can be a negativity out there in the press, on the telly and on the radio, but we have to deal with that," he explained.
"It's part of the job and certainly for the players who have to have the confidence to go out there on the pitch and perform."