Forward thinking for Zola

Gianfranco Zola may be determined to try and lead his team into the UEFA Europa League with four games to go but is also laying the initial groundwork for next season.

Stoke City on Saturday is rightly all that concerns the manager and his staff but occasional thoughts are also being turned to the summer and ensuring the club hits the ground running. Zola arrived in mid-September this season but believes that the chance to start work with his squad for 2009/10 from early July will be vital to a strong challenge - hopefully on a continental front as well as at home.

"Pre-season is the most important part of the season. You build up everything - your fundamentals, your knowledge of playing, your bond with the players, so it's a pity that I missed that part this year. But I'm going to make up for it this year.

"You put your stamp, your mentality straight away, you set everything from the beginning and by then we'll have the players I've chosen to improve the squad." As well as hoping to have everyone out of the treatment room before the start of the new season, the manager does expect to bring in a few new faces to complement those who have done so well to date.

"I don't know how much money I'll have to spend but I've been assured that if we need to get a couple of players to improve the squad they will. I don't think we need more than maybe two or three players that may be coming in."

A honed squad of around 20-22 players has been often talked about with a strong reserve-team set-up of talented youngsters. Vital to their development could be a European campaign but the manager reiterated that to have any chance of securing seventh then the team need to win two and draw one of the last four fixtures.

"I still believe 52 points will do it. So we need seven more points from four games. Two are at home, and two are away. They aren't easy games
but we'll see."

The weekend date at the Britannia Stadium is the very definition of a tough challenge with Stoke formidable at home all season. "Stoke don't look like the kind of team that will sit and not play the game. I'm sure they will be up for it and very confident. It's a good time and whether it's a good time or a bad time for us depends how we play. If we play our own game properly it will be a good fight.

"They are absolutely [good at home]. I think it's been their secret for the season as they've maybe won just one game away from home at West Brom. Other than that they've not done so well but at home they are a different team, very dangerous, very difficult to beat. I'm expecting a game like that on Saturday."

The manager has seen his team come away with positive results from Anfield, Stamford Bridge and The Emirates this season - not to mention places like Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers - and believes his team are anything but a soft touch on the road. "Our performances away from home at difficult pitches have been quite good so we're not afraid of going there and fighting if it's necessary."