Manchester United vs Stoke City
After another of those much maligned international breaks, Saturday sees a welcome return to club football as Stoke City travel to Old Trafford to face the Reds. United will be keen to carry on where they left off having secured a resounding 3-0 victory away at Newcastle in their last league outing; a game which provided a mouth-watering glimpse of what could lie ahead for the rest of the season if Rooney and van Persie dovetail to as good an effect as they did in their first league start together.
It is always difficult to predict how United will line up in the game immediately after the international break with players only having limited time to recuperate from the draining travel associated with international football. As such, opportunities could be given to those who spent the break at Carrington; particularly as United play Braga on Tuesday night before travelling south to Stamford Bridge next Sunday to face current league-leaders Chelsea.
Sir Alex Ferguson faces a difficult decision regarding the choice of goalkeeper for the match on Saturday. David de Gea started against Newcastle having impressed against Cluj previously but his performance in the north-east did little to dispel the fact that he is vulnerable in the air and against a team famed for their fondness for pumping high balls into the penalty area, the manager may decide that Lindegaard is the safer option.
In defence, it should be expected that the same back four that started at Newcastle will keep their places. Rafael seems to be improving with every game this season combining defensive solidity with attacking prowess and certainly has strong claims to have been the Reds player of the season to date. At left-back, the much-criticised Patrice Evra turned in, in my opinion, his best performance of the last two years at Newcastle, even popping up with a rare goal and re-finding his defensive strengths that saw him reach the status of arguably the world’s best left back four to five years ago. And by all accounts, he followed that up with a fantastic performance in Spain as France came away with a 1-1 draw on Wednesday night, providing hope that the Frenchman can return to the high levels he reached in his first few seasons at Old Trafford. At centre-back, Rio Ferdinand should be fresh having been ludicrously overlooked for England (it really is a travesty to football that Lescott and Jagielka are picked ahead of him) and Jonny Evans – who played magnificently on Tuesday night as his native Northern Ireland came away with a point from the Estadio do Dragao – should rekindle their partnership that seems to improve with each passing game.
As mentioned, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the manger opted to rest at least one of Michael Carrick or Tom Cleverley seeing as though both started twice for England although hopefully this won’t lead to the return of the dreaded Giggs-Scholes combination. It seems clear for all to see (except Fergie?) that playing one of them is fine but starting both leaves United overstretched and overrun in midfield. Having said that, would it come as a big surprise if both Giggs and Scholes started on Saturday? No. With United having effectively played with no wingers at Newcastle, instead playing with a fluid three man midfield, it will be interesting to see if the width so associated with the Reds returns. To me, it would make sense to start with two wingers with United likely to receive plenty of possession during the course of Saturday’s encounter.
It really is a lottery as to who the manager will select in attack. So far this season, United’s strikers haven’t shared the goalscoring burden with Robin van Persie far and away ahead of the other United strikers in the goalscoring stakes. Both Rooney and Welbeck are yet to net for the Reds this season whilst Javier Hernandez only has the one league goal to his name and by his high standards, even van Persie will be disappointed that he hasn’t netted in either of United’s last two league outings. As a consequence, whoever gets the nod up front will be itching to get their name on the scoresheet. All four of United’s strikers scored on international duty this week so hopefully they can transfer their goalscoring touch to club level on Saturday.
Predicted XI: Lindegaard, Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra, Valencia, Scholes, Anderson, Nani, Rooney, van Persie
The Potters are in their fifth consecutive season in the Premier League and withstanding any grievances you may hold about how they approach the game you cannot deny that Tony Pulis has masterminded a remarkable achievement in having not only kept them up but taking them to an FA Cup Final and achieving qualification for the Europa League. So far this season, they have carried on in the same vein as previous seasons by proving extremely difficult to beat having turned in a series of resolute performances which have seen them draw five out of their opening seven matches; winning one and losing one of the other two.
Stoke are built upon a strong defensive foundation in which goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and ex-United centre-back, Ryan Shawcross are integral. The Bosnian goalkeeper is capable of pulling off truly great saves most pertinently demonstrated by his superb fingertip save to deny Javi Garcia winning the game for City in the last minute of September’s encounter at the Britannia. Similarly, Shawcross has steadily developed at Stoke, a development that last week saw him rewarded with a call-up to the England squad for the games against San Marino and Poland. And like Begovic, United have him to thank for ensuring City didn’t gain all three points at the Britannia; it was his goal line clearance that denied an Edin Dzeko lob with virtually the last kick of the game. Shawcross’s fellow centre-back is Robert Huth who may be feeling a bit lucky to be available for this game following the FA’s decision not to take action against him for a perceived stamp on Liverpool’s Luis Suarez: although I would normally never condone such a violent act, Huth should be commended for his commitment to stamping racism out of football.
In midfield, Stoke are packed with mobile, tough-tackling midfielders with the focus being on stifling the opposition rather than providing creativity. Steven N’Zonzi was a shrewd signing with the Frenchman impressing for Blackburn last season as was the free signing of American international Maurice Edu following Rangers’ demise. Charlie Adam was another summer capture having failed to live up to expectations at Liverpool. However, to be fair to him, most of Liverpool’s signings during Kenny Dalglish’s reign didn’t live up to expectations.
Up front, Peter Crouch has started the season in impressive form with four league goals to his name so far this season and he will be the main goalscoring threat that United will have to watch out for. He is ably supported by the Irish international Jon Walters whose tireless running epitomises the hard-working approach this Stoke side are built around.
Predicted XI: Begovic, Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson, Whelan, Edu, N’Zonzi, Kightly, Walters, Crouch
United’s main rivals for the title face difficult games this weekend. Current leaders Chelsea travel the short distance to White Hart Lane to take on a Spurs side in a brilliant patch of form and managed by Andre Villas Boas who will be eager to exact a measure of revenge for the poor treatment and lack of support from the Chelsea players during his tenure at Stamford Bridge. City travel to the Hawthorns to take on a West Bromwich Albion side that have been the surprise package of the season so far having won all four of their home games in the Premier League this season. As such, the Reds will be eyeing this weekend as an opportunity to make gains on both Chelsea and City and hopefully close the gap on the leaders before next weekend’s showdown at Stamford Bridge.
Stoke have not picked up a point on their visits to Old Trafford since achieving promotion in 2008 and with the Reds hoping to build on what was their best performance of the season last time out against Newcastle, nothing more than the three points will suffice.