Stoke City at Old Trafford. Three thousand away supporters convinced the game is the biggest of the season. The rest of the stadium safe in the knowledge that it certainly is not. And yet while Stoke fans hold a misplaced sense of local rivalry there is no doubt that this is a vital match in Manchester United’s campaign. Not least because of the eight point gap now open between the Reds and Arsenal at the head of the Premier League, and perhaps even more so in the need to create some sense of momentum around the club.
United’s victory over Real Sociedad in the Champions League brought manager David Moyes relief on Wednesday night, with the home side performing credibly in securing three points. It is that modicum of impetus that is so important with a quarter of the Premier League season now complete.
Indeed, such has been the slow start under Moyes that United can barely contemplate anything other than gaining momentum right now. The title may not yet have slipped away, but eight points at any stage of the season is a gap to fear, let alone when sporting a squad with United’s limitations.
It is, says veteran Patrice Evra, a start that now demands the kind of consistency commonplace under Sir Alex Ferguson, but as yet not found with the new regime.
“The problem is not that we are doing badly, it is because we are not doing things well enough,” Evra told MUTV.
“We have lost our consistency and we need to find it really quickly if want to win every trophy. We can’t win one game and draw the next one, or lose it. Now every game is important. We have to make sure we win against Stoke.
“We want to win two or three games in a row but it is when we win 10 games in a row, that I will say Manchester United are back in business. At the moment we are not. We need to win those 10 games. We don’t have any choice. After that we can play the beautiful football.”
That beauty has been absent this season, although at times United came close against La Real on Wednesday, with the Reds playing a more vibrant and flexible brand of football than for most of the season.
Still, with United seemingly liberated in Europe, but constrained at home, it remains to be seen whether Moyes will counter Stoke’s traditionally robust approach with brains or brawn. The Scot has erred on the side of conservative with most major choices during the campaign to date.
The roles, or otherwise, or Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj may just answer that question on Saturday, with Moyes hinting at a less conservative approach in future following European success. At a minimum a greater role for United’s Japanese playmaker is surely in demand.
Meanwhile, Robin van Persie should return to the side after the Dutchman sat out United’s midweek fixture, although Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck miss out through injury. Midfielder Marouanne Fellaini will play with a cast on his wrist after the Belgian postponed a minor operation earlier in the season.
“Robin has a good chance. He’s had problems with his toes and a little bit with his groin as well, but I think he should be OK. He’s had a little bit of training as well,” confirmed Moyes on Friday.
“Everybody’s improving and the only one who’s a doubt at the moment is Danny Welbeck, who has some fluid on his knee. Tom Cleverley is still recovering from his calf but overall we’re pretty strong.”
Januzaj may return after impressing in United’s draw with Southampton last weekend, but missing out in Europe, although it will be a bold move for Moyes indeed if the Belgian-Kosovan is paired with Kagawa on the opposite flank. Kagawa put in what Moyes described as the midfielder’s “best performance” of the season against Sociedad, but could find himself back on the bench for domestic competition.
Elsewhere, Moyes has a choice to make at centre-back with veterans Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand available, although Phil Jones and Jonny Evans impressed in midweek. Throw Chris Smalling into the mix and the most competition for any place in Moyes’ side is at the heart of the defence.
“I was with Jonny at Sunderland and you could see, with the ability he had, that he was going to have a great opportunity at United,” former Red Danny Higginbottom told MUTV.
“With Jones and Smalling as well, there is an abundance of talent in the centre while Rio and Vidic have been mainstays over the years.
“The time is going to come when the younger ones get more of an opportunity and, for me, it’s just good to have so much competition. From what I’ve seen from all the centre-backs at this moment in time, they are all performing well, and it’s a tough decision for the manager to make.”
Yet, it is up front where United has surprisingly struggled this season. The team scored four against Bayer Leverkusen and Swansea City, but those fixtures have proven to be exceptions, rather than the rule, with the creative spark too often missing.
Meanwhile, the Potters arrive just two points off the relegation zone, with Mark Hughes’ outfit having lost four league matches already this season. The slow start has placed new manager Hughes under renewed pressure. After all, the Welshman was sacked just a few games into the campaign at QPR last year.
Hughes will have defenders Ryan Shawcross and Geoff Cameron available again, with Stoke seeking a first victory over United since the League Cup second round in 1994. Victory that the visitors are apparently confident of achieving.
“They can’t afford any more slip-ups, but invariably when people question Manchester United they come back with the answers,” says Hughes, who played more than 467 games for the club.
“There are only a certain amount of games you can lose. Five or six enables you to still be in the title race. Lose any more than six then you make it very difficult, nigh on impossible, for yourself. They’ve lost three and maybe they are a little bit vulnerable at the moment.
“West Brom have won there so it’s more than possible that we can get a positive result. The expectation from ourselves and our fans is high.”
Defeat to Stoke would be an unpalatable result, of course, although not the first time that sentiment has been expressed this season.
Manchester United v Stoke City, Premier League, Old Trafford, 3pm, 26 October 2013
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Rooney, van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Smalling, Evans, Jones, Nani, Anderson, Young, Giggs, Kagawa, Hernández
Stoke (4-5-1): Begovic; Cameron, Huth, Shawcross, Pieters; Walters, Nzonzi, Ireland, Adam, Arnautovich; Jones. Subs from: Sorensen, Wilkinson, Whelan, Edu, Pennant, Muniesa, Palacios, Etherington, Wilson, Assaidi, Shea, Ness, Crouch
United 39 Draw 32 Stoke 26
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: J Collin, D Eaton
Fourth Official: M Dean