Stoke’s search for a new manager could be close to reaching its conclusion, with Espanyol boss Quique Sanchez Flores the club’s preferred option.
Press Association Sport understands Flores is now the leading contender to succeed Mark Hughes after Stoke had to abandon their hopes of luring Gary Rowett away from Derby after he signed a new contract with the Championship promotion hopefuls.
Martin O’Neill is the other name in the frame but, contrary to previous plans, he will be attending the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland annual awards banquet in Dublin on Friday night, suggesting he expects to remain as Republic of Ireland manager.
It has been reported that Sanchez Flores has been offered a five-year contract by Stoke and that he will inform the club of his decision on Friday.
O’Neill is still seen as an attractive choice by chairman Peter Coates but Flores could make his return to the Premier League next week, having previously managed Watford.
The 52-year-old is expected to tell Espanyol that he wants to leave to take over at the bet365 Stadium but he refused to comment on the reports last night after his team defeated Levante to reach the Copa del Rey quarter-finals.
Stoke sacked Hughes last week following their humiliating FA Cup defeat at Coventry and Eddie Niedzwiecki has been in temporary charge since, taking training ahead of the Premier League clash with Manchester United on Monday.
Niedzwiecki is expected to take the team for that game but it could be possible that Sanchez Flores, should he accept Stoke’s reported offer, could be in the stands at Old Trafford.
Under-18s boss Kevin Russell, who has been assisting Niedzwiecki, insists the Stoke players are in the right frame of mind heading into the match.
“The players have been fantastic since and acquitted themselves really well,” he said.
“It was a little bit difficult to begin with and we gave them the day off on the Tuesday after Mark left, to help them get their heads around it a little bit. But since then they have been right at it.
“The players will be hurting but they have a chance to try and rectify it on Monday.”
Stoke have slipped into the relegation zone after a run of just two wins in 12 Premier League matches but Russell does not think the club is in crisis.
“We are in a bad position at the moment and we need to get up the table but there’s enough good players at the club to get out of it,” he said. “If we get it right then I’m sure you’ll soon see us moving up the table.
“It’s far from a crisis, there’s a lot of teams in a similar position to what we are and we still have to play many of them, especially at home. And if we can get this place rocking then it’ll be a big advantage for us.
“We’ve also had a lot of injuries, which didn’t help Mark, but fortunately we have players coming back now.”
Erik Pieters and Bruno Martins Indi could return to the squad at Old Trafford. The Dutch defenders have stepped up their recoveries from hamstring and groin injuries respectively, resuming training this week.
There may be a debut for right-back Moritz Bauer after his switch from Rubin Kazan this week.