Manchester United’s run of nine straight victories came to a somewhat unsatisfying end last week, as Liverpool left Old Trafford with a point. The Reds’ unbeaten record was rescued only by a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic header, as José Mourinho was left to reflect on points dropped. The joy sparked by the Swede’s improvisational finish quickly dissipated after the final whistle in the knowledge that Jurgen Klopp’s side would head back down the M62 harbouring considerable satisfaction. This week, United travels to Stoke, looking to recover from last week’s derby disappointment.
The headlines, save for Sam Allardyce’s indiscretions, have been about Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney for a week or more. It probably couldn’t be any other way. Yet, lost amid José Mourinho’s decision to ditch a player who once enjoyed the “special privileges” at Old Trafford, has been United’s return to form, of sorts. Three defeats in succession derailed what early season momentum Mourinho’s side had built up. Victories over Leicester City and Zorya Luhansk in the past week have restored a more natural order to proceedings. Both without Rooney.
Boxing Day 2015. Manchester United, beaten 2-0 by Stoke City, left the Britannia Stadium flattered by a disappointing scoreline. Louis van Gaal marched down the touchline waving at the traveling United fans. Many saw it as an apologetic goodbye; few thought they would see Van Gaal in the dugout again. The defeat left United without a win in seven games over a period that saw the Reds crash out of the Champions League and slip down the domestic table. Read More
Manchester United’s last visit to the Britannia, New Year’s Day 2015, resulted in the kind of scoreless draw that most sides would take on a cold, windy day away at Stoke City. This time is different; anything other than a win on Boxing Day could spell the end of Louis Van Gaal’s period at Old Trafford. After all, the Dutchman is overseeing his worst spell as United manager – six games without a win, the last three of which ended in defeats. In total United can boast just three wins in the past 13 games. Read More
When will Louis Van Gaal crack the code? At the half way stage of the season United’s home record reads 10 games played and 25 points gained. It is a set of results second only to Chelsea’s this season. In stark contrast United has secured just 11 from nine games on the road – two points from as many away fixtures this month. Yet, the Reds’ recovery since November has been strong; United must translate home form to fixtures away from Old Trafford’s abiding comforts if the side is to mount a challenge for the Premier League title. United’s first game of the new year, at Stoke City, will prove a stern test of the Reds’ improving performance.
Not that Van Gaal’s outfit has been universally poor on the road of late. The Dutchman described United’s opening 45 at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday as “the best performance of Manchester United’s season,” although his side missed a clutch of chances in the first half to leave north London with a scoreless draw. Yet, over the season points have so rarely come on the road; victories at Arsenal and Southampton are the exceptions – and United’s performance at the Emirates and St Mary’s hardly merited victory.
Of more immediate concern is United’s need to play through the whole 90 minutes at the Britannia Stadium. It is a goal rarely attained this season. Indeed, it was of little surprise that the Reds’ performance dropped off in the second half at White Hart Lane, with Van Gaal citing fitness concerns after two games inside 48 hours.
Van Gaal’s side was also fortunate to secure three points against Stoke at Old Trafford in early December when the Potters created three good chances in the closing minutes.
“I remember that match, as we were very weak at the end of the game,” said Van Gaal on Tuesday. “You might remember me saying after that game that I needed to change the balance of my team. The balance of my team at that point was not as good as it is now.
“I’m saying every week that we are improving and we have to show that against Stoke. We have won every home game apart from Swansea and Chelsea; away from home, we won at Arsenal and Southampton. Against Southampton, we were lucky. We have to dominate games away from home.”
The Dutchman’s cause is boosted by positive injury news, with Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera and Adnan Januzaj available for the short trip to the Potteries. Di Maria trained this week after recovering from a minor pelvic injury, while Januzaj is available again after illness. Herrera should make the bench although is unlikely to start following Wayne Rooney’s strong performances in central midfield over the past month.
“Herrera has trained today for the first time with us and Januzaj has also trained two training sessions with us,” said Van Gaal on Wednesday. “They don’t have match rhythm. Januzaj was ill and you have to recover from your illness, not from your tiredness. Maybe it’s worse to recover from illness.”
Elsewhere, United’s manager is unlikely to make wholesale changes despite the heavy festival schedule. With returning players still regaining fitness the Dutchman will probably hold back several squad members for the weekend’s FA Cup tie at Yeovil Town.
Meanwhile, Stoke manager Mark Hughes may be without forward Bojan Krkic, who was substituted against West Bromwich Albion on Sunday with a hamstring problem. The 24-year-old former Barcelona striker underwent a scan on Tuesday, with a decision on his participation to be made shortly before the Thursday lunchtime kick off. Ex-United full-back Phil Bardsley has an ankle injury and will miss the tie alongside Stephen Ireland, Victor Moses and Pete Odemwingie.
Hughes suffered a poor record against Sir Alex Ferguson during spells with Blackburn Rovers and Fulham, although Stoke emerged victorious from the Premier League fixture against David Moyes’ United side at the Britannia last season. Charlie Adam’s long range strike and a Michael Carrick own goal contributed to a 2-1 defeat.
And while the Welshman recognises improvement at Old Trafford in the months since Moyes was sacked, the former United striker has every reason to feel unfortunate that Stoke did not grab an equaliser in Manchester last month.
“United seem to have little bit more confidence but that comes from winning which they are doing at the moment,” said Hughes. “They will always be a strong side and a difficult opponent but maybe the change of management has changed their attitude and mentality. They seem to be in a better place than they were when they came here last season.
“It’s still early days for Louis van Gaal at United. He talks a lot about his philosophy and any philosophy that you have as a manager takes time to instil. He has changed shape and formations but that takes time. They need a strong person at the head of the club and he certainly gives that impression.
“We’re looking forward to going up against them. We proved at their place that we can match them and our record against the bigger clubs since I joined the club is good, so we won’t have any apprehension ahead of the game.”
History is on United’s side though. The Reds have won 11 and lost just one of 13 Premier League meetings with Stoke, while striker Robin van Persie has scored 10 goals in as many league appearances against the Potters. The Dutchman may need to continue a record that includes four goals in five matches against the Potters if United is to secure only a third victory on the road this season.
Stoke (4-2-3-1): Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Muniesa, Pieters; Whelan, Nzonzi; Walters, Bojan, Diouf; Crouch
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Jones, McNair, Evans; Valencia, Carrick, Rooney, Young; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Stoke: Butland, Huth, Bardsley, Wilson, Arnautovic, Adam, Shenton Assaidi
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Shaw, Smalling, Rafael, Anderson, Herrera, Januzaj, Pereira, Di Maria, Wilson
Stoke 27 – Draw 32 – United 42
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: M McDonough, L Betts Fourth
Official: M Atkinson
Stoke 0-1 United
£1 bet club
Mata to score in 0-1 win @ 33/1
Running total: £(-)8
The best front three in the Premier League: David Moyes’ perhaps generous assessment of his attacking options ahead of Manchester United’s Premier League fixture with Stoke City this weekend. Generous in that the triumvirate is as yet untested as a combination; yet almost £90 million worth of exciting talent nonetheless.
A hint too at the options Moyes now boasts after Juan Mata’s arrival this winter, while Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney should join the Spaniard in the starting team if not this weekend then at home to Fulham in a week’s time. They might have to be the best too, with United falling to strengthen key a areas of weakness in defence and central midfield this winter.
Still, Moyes received a remarkable triple boost in the past week with Mata’s arrival coinciding with the return to fitness of key players. One that is also Moyes’ last roll of the dice this season as United seek qualification for next year’s Champions League. With United now six points and goal difference behind Liverpool the Reds can afford no more mistakes. There are fewer excuses for the new manager too.
With van Persie having completed more than an hour against Cardiff City on Tuesday, Mata is against likely to start at the weekend. Moyes faces a choice: to deploy the Spaniard on the left side of midfield, with Rooney returning to the number 10 role he has graced this season, or to push the Englishman up front and Mata into his prefered central role.
Elsewhere the Scot faces another dilemma – to employ Antonio Valencia in a traditional wide role on the right side or the free-roaming Adnan Januzaj. Or in other words will Moyes retain a variant of 4-4-2 following Mata’s capture, or has the evolution to the more fluid attacking system begun?
The latter may be against of Moyes’ natural instincts; an intrinsically conservative and reactionary coach in an era of progressive free-thinking football. Still, the Scot has talked a good game this week, and whatever the outcome, Moyes has little time to lose this season.
“We need to give Juan Mata time to settle in and not get too far ahead of ourselves too quickly,” said the manager on Friday.
“The one good thing is that because he has Premier League experience and being in the league and being at a big club, coming here should be a little easier. But we still have to be mindful that there is a change and we have to give him time for that to happen.
“Football is changing as the game goes on. Players change themselves. There is a lot more movement especially with the forward players. They still have to play in a framework and from that framework you allow it to develop themselves.”
On the pitch Moyes’ perennial injury crisis is easing, with only Nani and Rio Ferdinand definitely missing the trip to Stoke, although the Englishman is close to a return. Captain Nemanja Vidić is suspended following his dismissal at Chelsea a fortnight ago, while Michael Carrick could make the squad following a hamstring injury.
Marouanne Fellaini is an outside bet to make the matchday squad having return to training, although the Belgian is short of match fitness.
Once again the manager’s principle decision will be in central midfield where Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs compete for two spots if Carrick is not yet ready to start. And once again United will face being over-run in midfield, where the Premier League’s bottom side Cardiff City dominated last Tuesday.
“Nani has had a bad hamstring injury. He’s getting closer now but I think it will be another month until he will be about ready to play,” adds Moyes.
“Carrick is improving with his ankle and has got a good chance of being in the squad. He’s improving and has done some training. We’ll just check to see if he can twist and turn correctly before we make a decision.
“Rio is back in training and in the squad as well. I’ll continue to use Rio at the right times when we think we can play him. He has made a great contribution, especially in the first half of the season. He played a big part in helping me settle and get my feet under the table a little bit.”
Meanwhile, much of the focus will be on Rooney and van Persie, whose injuries have at least in part contributed to United scoring just 38 goals in the league – 19 fewer than at the same point last season.
“We’re mindful they’re both coming back from injuries and we have to make sure they’re ready,” said Moyes, whose decision to rush van Persie back into action earlier this season potentially contributed to the 30-year-old’s poor injury record over the past five months.
“We’re a little bit more concerned about Robin because he’s been out longer; Wayne’s been out for a shorter period. We have to keep managing them and do things right.
“When you want to win you need people like Robin van Persie, who will get you the winning goal. The other night, we started well and Robin got us a goal after six minutes.”
Meanwhile, Stoke manager Mark Hughes is without midfielder Steven Nzonzi, who serves a one-game ban following a red card at Sunderland. Peter Odemwingie, who joined from Cardiff City on Tuesday, could make his home debut. Fellow loanee John Guidetti, who complained about lack of playing opportunities just two week’s into his spell with Stoke, is again likely to be on the bench.
Still, Stoke need the points just as much as United, with Hughes’ side in wretched form of late. The Potters have lost four on the spin and lie just three points ahead of the relegation zone.
“Whenever you play Manchester United it’s difficult but with Mata, van Persie and Rooney coming back into the fold we’ve had a few sleepless nights this week,” admitted Stoke assistant manager Mark Bowen.
“We feel, and quite rightly so, that we can give anyone a game on our own patch and I’m sure we will do tomorrow against United. We’ve played them twice and done well against them for 70 minutes but that doesn’t really matter when you get beat.
“We’ll take positives from the game though and think that, both home and away, we caused problems for them and can do so again. I’ll settle for getting hammered, Asmir Begovic winning the Man of the Match and us winning 1-0, winning at the death. It doesn’t matter how good or bad we play, getting something out of the game tomorrow is the key.”
It’s a sentiment to which Moyes will surely concur.
Stoke City v Manchester United, Premier League, Britannia Stadium, 3pm, 1 February 2014
Stoke (4-5-1): Begovic; Cameron,Pieters, Shawcross, Wilson; Whelan, Adam, Ireland, Assaidi, Walters; Odemwingie.
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Cleverley, Januzaj; Mata; Rooney.
Stoke: Sørensen, Muniesa, Shotton, Crouch, Guidetti, Arnautovic, Palacios, Crouch
United: Lindegaard, Buttner, Kagawa, Giggs, Fletcher, Carrick, Fellaini, Welbeck, Young, van Persie, Hernández
Stoke 26 Draw 32 United 41
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Assistants: L Betts, A Halliday
Fourth Official: M Oliver
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
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
It is less a question of ‘why Delilah’, as Stoke City’s adopted song goes, but what exactly the club’s fans believe is the nature of any rivalry between them and Manchester United? After all, the visiting fans in Sunday’s match at the Britannia care little about Stoke, or the 42 mile distance between the clubs. Much to Stoke’s chagrin, it is a rivalry seemingly born only in Potters’ minds.
Still, the midlands club represents a significant hurdle in United’s faltering season. Victory will ease any palpitations Red hearts now suffer after last week’s reverse against Manchester City. Defeat, unthinkable given the hosts’ dire form, brings City squarely back into the title race with half-a-dozen matches to go.
City’s victory on Monday hurt United, although it has little to do with the Blues’ bizarre claim to the Champions of Manchester tag, but for the potential to derail United’s seemingly inextricable march towards the Premier League title. With a 12 point lead, and just seven matches to go, Ferguson’s team will surely still claim the title, but there is now at least a question mark. Not least because United blew an eight point lead with a similar number of fixtures remaining last season.
Still, if the derby loss does anything it should re-focus minds at Old Trafford, with Sunday’s visit to Stoke followed rapidly by a trip to West Ham United on Wednesday – surely a decisive week in the title race.
“The incentives are there for ourselves in the sense that we’ve only got seven games left,” said Sir Alex Ferguson.
“The challenge is there for Stoke as well. I don’t think they will go down but, nonetheless, they’re in a precarious situation because, down the bottom of that league, you don’t pick up a lot of points. I think they’ll get enough to get out.
“I don’t think we should look at our position in terms of being 12 points clear. What matters is winning on Sunday and we need to do that. As we always do, we should just try to do our best. We have a job to do on Sunday and we need to do it.”
Certainly, defeat is nowhere near as catastrophic as that in last April’s derby – a truly pivotal game. But United’s current funk may say much about the Reds’ state-of-mind. Real Madrid’s controversial victory in the Champions League at Old Trafford has sucked the wind out of United’s sails. It is Ferguson’s job to turn the tide.
But if Ferguson’s ship is listing it is still some way from the sinking below the waterline, even if defeat to City may feel a little deleterious. That Ferguson has sought to play down defeat as one born in the details says much. There must be no sense of panic at Old Trafford.
“It’s always disappointing to lose a derby,” adds Ferguson.
“There was nothing in it between the two teams. Possession-wise, they were better in the first half and we were better in the second half but lost two bad goals and you can’t do that in derby games. Both teams went for it. There was only one save in the whole match between the two goalkeepers. That gives you an idea about how close the game was.
“You don’t want to lose derby games. Nonetheless, we’ve got to dust ourselves down. We know we can recover from disappointments and we’ll do it again.”
That statement may be a little oblique in the circumstances, but Ferguson will at least have plenty of options for the short trip south. He takes a largely fit squad, with only winger Ashley Young, Chris Smalling and captain Nemanja Vidić absent.
Vidić and Smalling should be available next weekend, although Jonny Evans returns against Stoke. Meanwhile, Phil Jones – outstanding against City on Monday night – should retain his place in the United line-up. Paul Scholes could return to the squad.
“We are hoping Nemanja can start training today but he’s maybe a bit short for Sunday,” Sir Alex told MUTV.
“At least Jonny should be back and that’s the good news we’ve got on that front. Chris Smalling has started training running-wise and is not far away. Phil was fantastic and that was only his fourth game at centre-back this season.”
However, the squad’s rut of poor form poses plenty of questions. That none of his wingers claim any semblance of form is a challenge, while the balance between attack and defence is one that United has not always found during the campaign.
Still, Ferguson will field a strong side at the Britannia – a ground at which United has secured three wins from four visits despite Stoke’s reputation for an intimidating atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the hosts are in dire trouble at the foot of the Premier League, with just three points separating third-from-bottom Wigan Athletic and the Potters. Indeed, five defeats in the past six matches leaves Stoke bottom of the form table, with just five points secured in 2013. Even relegation-threatened Aston Villa won comfortably at the Britannia last weekend.
Under fire manager Tony Pullis welcomes back Matthew Etherington, defender Marc Wilson and midfielder Glenn Whelan to the hosts’ squad. The trio’s fitness proffers a boost in what has been an increasingly difficult season for the midlands outfit. After six season’s in the Premier League, the club is genuinely on the precipice.
And there is little comfort for Stoke in the side’s record against United; one that reads eight losses in nine meetings. Stoke has scored just two goals against United in four Premier League meetings at the Britannia, while the Potters must look back to Boxing Day in 1984 – and a 2-1 victory – for the last win over United.
Few will count on a repeat. Least of all Sir Alex.
Stoke City v Manchester United – Premier League, Britannia Stadium – 2.05pm, 14 April 2013 March 2013
Stoke (4-4-2): Begovic; Whelan, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson; Kightly, Nzonzi, Whitehead, Etherington; Jones, Walters. Subs from: Sorensen, Wilkinson, Adam, Cameron, Shotton, Owen, Crouch, Jerome
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Nani; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Powell, Scholes, Anderson, Giggs, Kagawa, Hernández, Welbeck
Referee: Jon Moss
Assistants: M McDonough, J Flynn
Fourth official: M Jones
Head to Head
Last 10: Stoke 26, United 38, Draw 32
Overall: Stoke 6, United 3, Draw 1
- Michael Kightly’s second half goal did not prevent Stoke falling to a 1-3 at the hands of Aston Villa last weekend;
- If the home side is to get anything from United’s visit then Ryan Shawcross is key – the Stoke captain lies second on the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for blocks with 38 this season;
- Glenn Whelan boasts the best tackle success rate of any Potters midfielder, completing 55.5 per cent of his 63 challenges;
- Jonathan Walters has scored a number of late winners this season, but his shot accuracy is just 45.2 per cent from 42 attempts;
- Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia admitted this week that United’s players are “worried” following defeat to City on Monday evening – the Ecuadorian winger has been much criticised for his own performances this season despite leading the squad for crosses completed (49) and dribbles (18);
- Defender Jonny Evans continues to improve – highlighted by an excellent 71.8 per cent tackle success rate from 32 challenges this season;
- By his high standards Robin van Persie has been enduring something of a dry spell in recent weeks, although with the Dutchman having a shot once every 24.8 minutes on average a goal is surely around the corner.
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.