Mark Hughes' preparations for the upcoming Premier League clash against Liverpool have been significantly boosted by the return to fitness of Ryan Shawcross. The influential Stoke City captain has been sidelined ever since ending a seven-week absence to start in a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Southampton in March.
Despite his importance to the cause, Shawcross has managed just 14 top-flight starts to date this term owing to persistent back problems. He was forced to miss the final six weeks of the 2014-15 campaign and underwent surgery during pre-season before eventually returning for the Capital One Cup fourth-round victory over Chelsea.
He suffered another frustrating setback at Leicester in January, limping off after just 30 minutes of a comprehensive loss to the league leaders before eventually visiting a specialist in Germany. The 28-year-old is now back in first-team training, although assistant manager Mark Bowen remains understandably eager to ensure that there are no more hiccups on the road to recovery.
"We've had a good couple of days on the training ground," he told Stoke's official website. "Ryan Shawcross is back in training and has trained well and the good thing is that he hasn't suffered any reaction.
"We've put a good amount of work back into him and he did some work with the physios at the back end of last week. The key has always been how well – or how badly – he reacts to the intensity of training but so far it has been really good. We're delighted with that and from Ryan's point of view, going into the weekend, we're now on Wednesday and we'll see how he turns up on Friday after a day's rest tomorrow."
Further encouragement for Stoke ahead of their visit to Anfield comes with the likely availability of Xherdan Shaqiri. The Swiss international, who remained the club's record signing before an £18.3m ($25.7m) winter swoop for Giannelli Imbula, sustained a thigh problem against Southampton but is now back in contention.
"Shaqiri has trained with us again this week," Bowen added. "We're delighted with that and he seems to have come through OK. I definitely think with him that if he doesn't suffer any reaction he'll be in the frame to start against Liverpool."
While Shawcross and Shaqiri could make their respective comebacks, Glenn Whelan is considered doubtful. The Irish midfielder has started all 32 of Stoke's league games this year, but recently felt a crack in his back while getting out of a car. Goalkeeper Jack Butland is expected to miss three months as a result of a fractured ankle picked up on England duty in Germany, while Marc Wilson, Glen Johnson and Jon Walters have all been victims of knee injuries. Versatile defender Geoff Cameron, meanwhile, has been dealing with an illness.