Sir Alex Ferguson has backed his squad to recover from FA Cup defeat at Anfield just three days ago, with the Scot’s Manchester United side facing Stoke City at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. The fixture offers Ferguson’s side a rapid opportunity to put the loss in Liverpool to one side and continue the pursuit of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League. Yet, with 11 players likely to be on the sidelines for Tuesday’s fixture, Ferguson’s side must recover the hard way against a typically committed Stoke outfit.
United’s record against Stoke at Old Trafford – eight wins in a row dating back to 1981 – suggests a routine three points. But with Ferguson’s players once again bruised by crushing defeat at the weekend, the Scot will do well to raise his troop’s spirits. Indeed, it is a season in which ‘recovery’ has been discussed far too often for some supporters’ liking: after heavy defeat to Manchester City in the league, when United crashed out of Europe, and now FA Cup disappointment.
Yet, Stoke, says Ferguson are unlikely to give United an easy ride at Old Trafford despite the poor record over the past 30 years in the Reds’ back yard.
“You know what Tony Pulis’ teams are like, they’re always the same with one hundred per cent commitment,” Ferguson told ManUtd.com.
“They all get stuck in and you have to cope with that. I quite enjoy that. When we used to play Wimbledon, at the beginning when they first came into our division, nobody enjoyed playing against them. But then I started and my team started to enjoy it because it was a challenge, a physical challenge in the way they played and a physical challenge in terms of trying to take control of the possessions and play your football.
“Stoke are a different team altogether from Wimbledon, obviously, but they still have the same quality of never giving in; they keep going, so it’s a good challenge for us.”
Ferguson is again without half a squad’s worth of injured players. Long-term injury victims Tom Cleverley, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher, Fabio da Silva and Nemanja Vidic are definitely out. Meanwhile, United will also be missing Ashley Young, Nani, and Rio Ferdinand, while Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones are unlikely to be risked.
Uncertainty also surrounds Ferguson’s choice of goalkeeper. While the much criticised David de Gea phoned in sick this week, Anders Lindegaard left training in a protective boot on Monday. The crisis may mean a recall to the squad for the long forgotten Pole Tomasz Kuszazck, who had been widely expected to leave the club this transfer window. Reserve Ben Amos could start.
Despite the ongoing injury crisis Ferguson maintained an upbeat mood this week, backing his players – especially the club’s much maligned midfield – to drive United towards a 20th domestic title come May. Indeed, in Tom Cleverley significant strategic hope is being placed, with United having failed to sign a midfielder of note for the past four seasons.
“Cleverley is doing a lot of running. He’s nowhere near the first team at the moment but he’s doing a lot of running,” confirmed Ferguson of the midfielder who has played just 58 minutes football since 10 September.
“Michael Carrick’s form has been unbelievable – he’s been playing fantastic – and we’ll also have Giggs, Scholes, Cleverley and Anderson, so that’s a great group of midfield players that will definitely help us. He’ll be a terrific boost. It will be great to get the boy back because I think he’s special.
“I expect (Young) to start training in the middle of the week, so he’s on his way back. Cleverley is two weeks behind that. Anderson will be ready this week, too. He’ll start training with us on Monday or Tuesday and then it gives me a collection of midfield players that should cope with anything that happens in the run-in.”
Meanwhile, Stoke arrive in decent form, some 12 points beyond the relegation zone, safety already assured for another season. But Pullis may be without winger Matthew Etherington who has a groin injury. Cameron Jerome could make his first start of the year after scoring last week.
Yet, for all Stoke’s progress the focus is squarely on whether United can remain in touch at the top of the Premier League. With Manchester City away at Everton there is a realistic chance that Ferguson’s men will gained ground on the Blues. But to do that, United must overcome both mass injury and the obvious disappointment of the past week.
“Every player at this club knows what’s expected. When you’re at Manchester United you know defeats like that aren’t acceptable. We don’t need anybody else to tell us that. We know it deep down,” adds defender Jonny Evans.
“We’ve played really well against Stoke in the last few games, both at home and away. I think we’ve dealt particularly well with their long throw-ins. There isn’t much of a run-up at Old Trafford on the side of the pitch, which will probably help us. We’ve beaten them comfortably over the last few seasons but they’re improving all the time and nobody ever looks forward to playing against Stoke.
“They have a different approach to the way most teams play. People have this preconception of them and think that because they’re a big side they’re a dirty side. But that’s not the case at all. I think they’re hard but fair and Tony Pulis goes out of his way to make sure they don’t cross that line.”
And that may well be a relief to the few remaining United players not yet injured! Yet, there is no doubt the fixture is pivotal to United’s hopes of silverware this season. Indeed, it is the first time in the Premier League era that United has been out of the Champions League and FA Cup by this stage of the season. Anything less than a comfortable win tonight is unthinkable.
Manchester United versus Stoke City, Premier League, Old Trafford, Tuesday 31 January 2012, 8pm.
United (4-4-1-1): Amos; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Park; Hernandez, Welbeck. Subs from: Kuszazck, Fryers, Cole, Giggs, Lingard, Pogba, Keane, Berbatov.
Stoke (4-5-1): Sorensen; Wilkinson, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson; Pennant, Palacios , Whitehead, Delap, Walters; Crouch. Subs from: Begovic, Wilkinson, Whelan, Jones, Fuller, Etherington, Jerome.
- United kept pace with league leaders City with a 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the last Premier League game at the Emirates;
- Michael Carrick covered the most ground for United in that game with 6.06 miles, while Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck scored for the Reds;
- Valencia’s goal was just his second of the season, but the winger has also contributed an impressive eight assists;
- Valencia has the joint second highest number of assists and the fourth best minutes per assist in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, with one every 139 minutes;
- Ryan Giggs has the best minutes per assist rate in the league, with an assist every 117 minutes (seven in total);
- Welbeck’s goal was his sixth of the season in the Premier League from 34 attempts. He has achieved 74 per cent of shots on target, the third best percentage on target (among players who have had more than twenty efforts at goal);
- Nani has now delivered over 100 crosses for United (105), topping the Index, 28 crosses ahead of second place Sebastian Larsson;
- Meanwhile, Stoke’s last Premier League outing was a 2-1 defeat at the hands of West Bromwich Albion;
- Peter Crouch covered the most ground for Stoke in that game with 5.8 miles;
- Cameron Jerome scored Stoke’s goal in that game – just his second Premier League strike of the campaign.
Referee: Mike Jones (Chester)
Assistants: P Kirkup, A Garratt
Fourth Official: C Foy