There may be a small part of David Moyes, buried a little beneath the surface, that wouldn’t be too hurt if his side loses in Stoke on Wednesday. After all, victory would take Manchester United into the Capital One Cup semi-finals, adding two fixtures to an already difficult January schedule. With Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and two ties with Swansea City to come in the New Year, every part of Moyes’ squad is set to be be tested.
January is to come though. For the moment any sense of momentum gained from Sunday’s victory over Aston Villa is vital in a season of frustrating inconsistency. Tough schedule in the New Year or not United must simply build a winning run through a series of games in December before a more challenging schedule emerges in 2014.
With United still 10 points behind leaders Arsenal momentum is now everything if the Reds are to ensure Champions League qualification next season, let alone retain the Premier League title.
Still, this is the Capital One Cup and United travels to the Potteries with Moyes ready to make a raft of changes. Indeed, some of the Scot’s squad are short of minutes this season, although Moyes has extensively rotated throughout the campaign. That the former Everton manager is yet to settle on his preferred matchday squad, let alone his best 11, is a mark of constant flux at Old Trafford this season.
The pattern is certain to be repeated on Wednesday, both through injury and rotation. Certainly out is Dutchman Robin van Persie, who would not have featured even if the striker had not picked up a thigh injury last week. Meanwhile, midfielder Michael Carrick is not expected to return from an achilles problem for another fortnight.
On a more positive note Shinji Kagawa could feature in the cup squad despite missing Sunday’s victory in Birmingham, while Marouane Fellaini returns after suffering from a back strain. Chris Smalling could start after returning to training this week, while Wilfried Zaha should feature at some point against Stoke.
“We have a squad of players who I believe can all play in any game, so I’ll see who I think is ready,” said Moyes on Tuesday.
“We have a lot of games coming up and we need to use that squad. I’ll look at this game and see who is best suited. But I think we have fielded a strong side in every game we have played.
“Managers might have some priorities that are more important than others but I’ve tried to win every competition I’ve been involved in and I will definitely do everything I can to win this one.”
Aside from three points perhaps the most positive outcome from United’s weekend victory was the reemergence of Darren Fletcher at Villa Park. The 29-year-old Scot has missed much of the past two years with a persistent bowel condition that required three operations over the summer.
Now fit and illness-free, Fletcher featured as a second-half substitute against Villa and may repeat the cameo against Stoke on Wednesday. Few expect the Scot to have a major impact on United’s season, with Fletcher having made just 11 appearances over the past three campaigns, yet the midfielder’s return remains a great news story in a campaign of few bright moments.
The Scot’s fight to play once again, where many expected early retirement, is surely an inspiration to colleagues who have seemingly lost some of the old determination.
“If the operation was not a success there was no way I would be able to play football,” Fletcher told ManUtd.com this week.
“My everyday life would be very difficult if it wasn’t a success. It was two or three operations not just one, so it was psychologically challenging dealing with surgery as well. But I couldn’t live my life at all. I needed something to be done.
“There was a day in about May when we said ‘this is it’. Once I came out of that operation it was going to be, ‘this has either worked or it hasn’t’. It was a very emotional day. There was a lot of fear and anxiety and a lot of build-up. When that moment came, it was such a relief.”
“Now I am back to normal, I am standing here and I do not have ulcerative colitis. I have come through that, and now I am leading a normal life. I am back playing football in the Premier League, it has all been a success. I am just like anyone else.”
Meanwhile, Stoke manager Mark Hughes will be without German defender Robert Huth who is recovering from knee surgery, although Matthew Etherington is available again after being sidelined with a back problem.
Hughes, who enjoyed a spiky relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson, is forcing through a period of transition at Stoke in the post-Tony Pullis era. No longer purely a long-ball side, Hughes’ outfit has gained some notable results this season including a recent victory over Chelsea.
And Hughes is not one to join many pundits and supporters in believing that United is weaker under Moyes than in previous seasons. The Welshman is set to field a strong Stoke side against the club for whom he appeared 467 times in two spells as a player.
“Manchester United teams always display certain characteristics and traits, and in recent weeks people have wondered what kind of season they will be having,” said the Stoke manager.
“But when that happens, invariably the players respond. That’s what you saw against Aston Villa. The qualities that United teams in the past have had are still there in abundance.
“But this is a game that we want to win, and that will be shown in the team that I select. You do have to be conscious of certain things over this period, because you don’t want to burn out your players, but at the same time you want to win matches too – whether they be in the Premier League or in the cup competitions.”
It is a sentiment with which Moyes might agree. In fact with United so far behind in the league, and not one of the favourites in European competition, the Capital One Cup represents a realistic opportunity for the Scot to secure his first trophy as United manager.
It is a prize, albeit a lesser one, that the Scot risks in selecting a much-changed team on Wednesday.
Stoke City v Manchester United, Capital One Cup, Britannia Stadium, 7.45pm, 17 December 2013
Stoke (4-5-1): Sørensen; Pieters, Shawcross, Muniesa, Cameron; Arnautovic, Whelan, Adam, Ireland, Assaidi; Jones. Subs from: Begovic, N’Zonzi, Wilson, Palacios, Crouch, Pennant, Wilkinson
United (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Fabio, Smalling, Ferdinand, Buttner; Nani, Jones, Cleverley, Young; Welbeck, Hernández. Subs from: De Gea, Johnstone, Rafael, Evans, Evra, Vidić, Anderson, Fletcher, Ekangamene, Cole, Giggs, Zaha, Valencia, Kagawa, Januzaj, Rooney
Stoke 26 Draw 32 United 40
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: Simon Beck, Ian Hussin
Fourth Official: Simon Hooper