The Britannia Stadium, they say, is a cauldron of hostility and Tony Pullis’ Stoke City team the most aggressively direct of any in the Premier League. And while Stoke’s supporters continue to live with the bizarre notion that there is a local rivalry with United to maintain, Pullis’ team is a far better footballing outfit than the pervading popular opinion.
Manchester United head to the Britannia Saturday afternoon seeking a sixth straight Premier League win, in what is the Reds’ best start to a season since 1985. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men face a stern test of that record but, boasting a flawless record against the Potters in recent times, travel South in confident mood.
Ron Atkinson’s ’85 team won 10 straight in the old First Division before old failings were exposed and United finished a disappointing fourth. Atkinson would have only a year left in the job by the his side dropped its first points. With games against Liverpool at Anfield and the derby with Manchester City to come the odds are firmly in favour of Atkinson retaining one of the few records Ferguson has not broken in the 25 years since the Scot took over at Old Trafford.
In any case, chasing records is a notion to which Ferguson gives short shrift, preferring to concentrate on the here-and-now and another examination of his team’s title credentials.
“There is no point analysing our start in terms of previous years,” said Ferguson on Friday.
“I am just enjoying the moment and hope it lasts longer than normal. You know somewhere along the line we will lose a game or drop a point. That is a fact. That is the league we are in. Does it matter if you win the league? No it doesn’t. You deal with the situations as they come along. If we have a defeat, the next week you try to win.”
Ferguson will be without a trio of injured stars – Nemanja Vidic, Rafael da Silva, and potentially Chris Smalling, who has a minor calf problem. Captain Vidic’s return could again be delayed, with the giant Serbian suffering with an ongoing shoulder problem that has failed to clear. But United should welcome back defender Rio Ferdinand for the fixture. The former England captain has missed games against Benfica and Chelsea with a hamstring strain, but is likely to start at the Britannia.
“He has not done any training and just been having treatment,” Ferguson said of the 32-year-old defender.
“Calves can be troublesome that way. When Bryan Robson did his, it kept him out for three months. Rio’s [injury] record is fact. We wish it was better but we use him to our advantage when we have him available because you cannot dismiss the experience he brings. He missed a couple [of matches] after Bolton and one after West Brom, but I don’t mind that because with the squad we have got we utilise him the way we want to.
“We’re delighted with [Chris] Smalling, [Jonny] Evans and [Phil] Jones because the three of them have been magnificent and no doubt they’re the long-term future, but there are occasions when you bring in the bit of experience that Rio offers and it does make a difference. You saw at Bolton, he absolutely walked through the game.”
Elsewhere, Ferguson is likely to persist with the attacking quartet that began against Chelsea, with Javier Hernandez having recovered from the bruised shin suffered after Ashley Cole’s brutal assault last week. While Wayne Rooney is rightly taking the plaudits, with 10 goals in all competitions this season, Ashley Young and Nani have nine assists between them in the league alone.
The game is also likely to be a major test for goalkeeper David de Gea, the Spaniard who has visibly grown in confidence as the season progressed, from the early mistakes against City and West Bromwich Albion, to the excellent display in last week’s match with Chelsea that prompted the Manchester Evening News to award the 20-year-old it’s man-of-the-match gong.
Indeed, de Gea has been put through a rigorous training regimen at Carrington this week in preparation for Rory Delap’s long-throw missile that proffers Stoke both chances and territorial advantage.
“It’s an eye-opener for any goalkeeper,” added Ferguson.
“I remember discussing with Edwin what his position would be in terms of the long throw-ins and where he was most comfortable dealing with the situation. We got it right then and we are doing the same with David. All the work this week has been on his position and where he should be.”
Despite United’s strong record against Stoke in recent seasons – a 100 per cent win rate since the Potters’ promotion in 2008 – Ferguson warns against any complacency, with Liverpool losing in the city last week and Chelsea held to a draw. Yet the Scot refuses to join in the chorus of critics about Stoke’s style of play.
“It’s never been a problem for us,” adds the United boss.
“Everyone plays to their strengths. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You see the progress the team is making. They have signed two or three players, they are playing European football and having a right go. They have a great attitude and their support is brilliant.”
Meanwhile, Pullis will be without striker Kenwyne Jones who is out after picking up a hamstring injury in the Potters midweek Carling Cup tie. But Matthew Upson could retain his place after a strong performance against Tottenham Hotspur this week.
Atkinson’s first dropped points 26 years ago came in a 1-1 draw at Luton Town. The Hatters now play in the Blue Square Premier. The smart money says Stoke is unlikely to repeat the feat this weekend.
Stoke City versus Manchester United, Premier League, Britannia Stadium, 5.30pm, 24 September 2011.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Evans, Giggs, Evans, Fletcher, Pogba, Park, Diouf, Owen, Berbatov, Welbeck.
Stoke (4-4-2): Begovic; Huth, Woodgate, Upson, Shawcross; Pennant, Delap, Palacios, Etherington; Jones, Crouch. Subs from: Sorensen, Whitehead, Wilkinson, Whelan, Walters, Wilson, Shotton, Wilson, Diao, Jerome
EA performance stats
- The Manchester United team covered a total of 76.59 miles during the 3-1 win at Old Trafford against Chelsea, with Nani covering 7.99 miles, Darren Fletcher 7.65 miles and Wayne Rooney 7.55 miles
- Wayne Rooney scored his ninth Premier League goal in last Sunday’s win. The striker has now, on average, scored a goal every 53 minutes 40 seconds of Premier League action this season. He is also the Premier League player to have had the most total shots (24) this season.
- Rooney remains the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index’s top ranked player. United boasts four more players in the top 10: Ashley Young (2nd), Nani (6th), Anderson (7th) and de Gea (10th)
Referee: Peter Walton (Long Buckby)
Assistants: M Mullarkey, D C Richards
Fourth Official: C Foy