Ah, the international break – that period when Manchester United fans kick back and think of better things to come, a season once again disrupted by World Cup qualification. It is also the time when Sir Alex Ferguson prays to the Gods of whomever that his squad will return from faraway lands fit and healthy. Somehow, it seems, this has rarely been the case in recent seasons. Yet, Ferguson’s squad will be fuller, and healthier, for Stoke City’s visit to Old Trafford this weekend than at almost any time in the past two seasons.
Injuries have disrupted a season that has borne two Premier League defeats in seven games to date, while a seemingly ever-changing tactical approach has rarely been conductive to consistency. However, with all bar Nemanja Vidić, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, available for the Potters’ visit, Ferguson could field something approaching his full strength side this weekend.
Tony Pullis’ side will present another test of Ferguson’s sometimes fragile back-four, although counter to popular sentiment United has rarely struggled against the Midlanders. In eighth Premier League encounters between the two sides over the past four years, United has triumphed on seven occasions. Still, with a rare 3pm Saturday kick off afforded the Scot’s side, United has the chance to close to within a point of Chelsea at the head of the Premier League table by Saturday evening.
“Everyone came back from the internationals fit,” confirmed Ferguson on Friday.
“Which is a bonus. It is always a time when you’re a bit concerned about getting the players back but, fortunately, we’ve been lucky this time. Also Ashley Young is fit. Chris Smalling is not quite there but is making progress.
“Young gives us another option. As I’ve said many times over the last few weeks, the strength of our squad is the attacking options we have and we’re getting better with Darren Fletcher coming back which has been terrific for him and for us.
“There has been some progress with players like Nick Powell, who is progressing well, as is Tom Cleverley and Anderson is getting better all the time so all the fears about the midfield positions are evaporating quite well.”
Ferguson’s England quartet – Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck – could all feature against the Potters, although Welbeck’s inclusion from the start is far from guaranteed. The Longsight-born striker scored twice against San Marino during the recent break, but is more likely to feature against Sporting Braga in the Champions League on Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, Ferguson will make a late call on which wingers to deploy – if any – with Nani out-of-favour, Antonio Valencia travelling back from South America, and Ashley Young only just available after missing two months through injury. United successfully deployed a ‘wingerless’ diamond system against Newcastle United at St James’ Park prior to the international break, with Rooney in the hole behind Robin van Persie.
In defence Ferguson may again rotate out David de Gea, while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans should continue a fruitful partnership in the heart of United’s back-four.
Visitors Stoke arrive with defender Andy Wilkinson available after suspension, although Glenn Whelan misses out with a hamstring problem. Former United player Michael Owen, who has had a groin strain, could make the bench. The striker scored 17 goals in 52 games for United over three years and claims that he is “desperate” to play in the fixture.
There is little history to suggest the visitors will come away with anything on Saturday. The Midlanders haven’t emerged victorious from a visit to Old Trafford in 36 years, when Alan Bloor headed home an 87th minute winner. Stoke hasn’t gained a point in Manchester since 1980. Physical though Pullis’ side may be, it has rarely gained any traction against Ferguson’s side.
“It is always hard to play against Stoke because they play a different kind of football to most teams in the Premier League. They are very physical and have very strong players,” United winger Nani told MUTV.
“It is also difficult because most of the game is in the air. We need to be strong and try to play our game.”
Although, with United having scored a league-high five goals from corners this season it is the home side that has becoming a surprising threat from set-pieces. In a game of many contrasts that is, perhaps, the most unexpected.
Manchester United v Stoke City – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 20 October 2012, 3pm
United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Scholes, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: De Gea, Wootton, Buttner, Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher, Giggs, Nani, Young, Welbeck, Hernández.
Stoke (4-5-1): Begovic; Cameron, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson; Kightly, Whitehead, Adam, Nzonzi, Etherington; Crouch. Subs from: Sorensen, Upson, Edu, Jones, Walters, Jerome.
Referee: A Taylor
Assistants: D Cann, S Long
Fourth Official: M Halsey
Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, Stoke 1, Draw 1
Overall: United 37, Stoke 26, Draw 32
- United remain second in the Premier League after goals from Jonny Evans, Patrice Evra, and Tom Cleverley completed a comprehensive 3-0 victory against Newcastle United two weeks ago;
- Evans’ progress into the United first team has been fast tracked in recent seasons by injuries, with the defender contributing nine clearances, three interceptions and three blocks so far this season;
- Evra, meanwhile, has won nine of the 11 tackles he has attempted so far this season, while also getting forward to deliver 15 crosses;
- Cleverley is short of goals during a fledgling United career, with the strike against Newcastle his first in the Premier League this season – the midfielder has hit the target with four of six shots at goal this season;
- Only one player, Papiss Cisse, has taken more shots without a Premier League goal than Wayne Rooney this season – the Scouser has attempted 14 shots without scoring;
- Carrick put in an energetic performance against Newcastle, covering 6.75 miles, the highest by any United player so far this season;
- The Geordie has also completed more passes in his opponent’s half (213), without being credited with an assist, than any other player;
- Midfield partner Scholes has completed 189 passes in his opponent’s half so far this season, one every 1 minute, 57 seconds – the best passing/ration in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Meanwhile, Stoke earned a point against Liverpool last time out, and could have taken all three points but for saves by Pepe Reina from Charlie Adam and Michael Kightly;
- Kightly has seen nine of his ten shots at goal on target so far this season, an accuracy rating of 90 per cent, which is the best in the league;
- Former Red Ryan Shawcross has has attempted 20 tackles so far this season without conceding a single foul, the most of any player in the Index;
- Peter Crouch has four Premier League goals so far this season, but has also contributed 42 tackles, interceptions, clearances or blocks this season;
- Crouch has also received the ball more times than any other Stoke player, with 289 ball receptions.