Stoke City vs. Manchester United Preview

Now that the Wayne Rooney saga has reached a conclusion, we can get back to focusing on football and not all these off-the-pitch shenanigans. Manchester United are undefeated this season, but still waiting to record their first away win in the Premier League. United’s four away fixtures have resulted in draws, but Sunday’s trip to Stoke City will offer yet another opportunity to collect their first win away from Old Trafford.

The 2010-11 campaign marks Stoke City’s third consecutive season in the Premier League. The Potters are currently ninth in the Premier League table with a record of three wins, one draw, and four losses. Though relatively new to the top division, Stoke City have established themselves as a mid-table club since their promotion and are not a team that should be taken lightly. History is in favor of United, though, with the Red Devils winning all four of the previous meetings since Stoke City’s rise to the Premier League in 2008.

With regards to our own squad, I expect we’ll see numerous changes from Wednesday’s XI beginning at the very back with Edwin van der Sar coming in for Tomasz Kuszczak. Rafael has established himself as the first-choice right back in recent weeks, while Patrice Evra is almost an automatic selection on the opposite side of the defense. Skipper Nemanja Vidic should retain his place in the squad, but I expect Rio Ferdinand will return to action taking Chris Smalling’s place.

Midfield is a slightly trickier area to predict, especially with injuries piling up. Nani is almost undroppable at the moment, so I’m sure he’ll have a place in the squad. Though he can still be frustrating at times, the Portuguese winger is capable of producing moments of sheer brilliance. After a disappointing performance from Michael Carrick against Busaspor, Paul Scholes should return to the starting XI. Alongside him will likely be Darren Fletcher. The Scotland captain looked a bit off pace on Wednesday, but I’m sure it was no more than a fluke. Fletcher has become a guaranteed first team player, so I anticipate he’ll be the engine in midfield. Filling the fourth and final spot, I believe Gabriel Obertan earned himself a start after his midweek performance. His pace is a deadly asset, and he has a good touch as well. The Frenchman also seems to have the sort of creativity we’ve lacked so far this campaign. Look for Obertan to join his compatriot on the left come Sunday.

Finally, we have the strikers. Although he’s been in the press all week and has just signed a new contract extension, Wayne Rooney will take no part in this weekend’s fixture due to an injury. With Federico Macheda playing in the midweek fixture, I expect he’ll be rested with Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov partnering up front. Berbatov is the team’s leading scorer at the moment, but has gone quiet in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Chicharito is fresh off his first Premier League goal against West Brom and it goes without saying that he’ll be looking to add to his tally.

There are three players to keep an eye on in the Potters’ squad. I’ll start at the back with the club’s captain Ryan Shawcross, who was on the books at United in his youth. The 23-year-old centre back joined Stoke City from United in 2008 and has become an automatic fixture in the team since his arrival. Shawcross is an imposing figure in the back four and is very physical going into challenges, which has given him a reputation as a dirty player. There is little doubt that Shawcross is a very capable centre back and will provide our attack with some problems, but I am more concerned with our players’ safety. Intentional or not, the Englishman has a record of causing injuries with his challenges, and we cannot afford to have more players stranded on the sidelines.

Moving up into midfield, Stoke City have a unique threat in Rory Delap. The Irishman is not so much renowned for his performances in open play, but rather for his trademark long throw-ins. In his time at the Britannia Stadium, Delap has created 29 goals from his throw-ins. The United defense has been prone to conceding goals this season and Delap’s throw-ins will present an unfamiliar threat to the back four.

Finally, the Potters have a deadly striker in Kenwyne Jones. The Trinidadian striker has three goals to his name in the Premier League this season, which makes him Stoke City’s leading scorer. While at Sunderland, Jones was linked with moves to Liverpool, Chelsea, and Tottenham, but ultimately moved to Stoke City for £8 million making him the club’s record signing. Jones scored against United in his time at Sunderland and will inevitably be the biggest threat against keeping a clean sheet on Sunday.

Although there is some excellent talent gracing Stoke City’s squad, my gut tells me that United will collect three points on the road for the first time this season. My prediction for the scoreline is a 2-1 victory for United. I expect Jones will get his name on the score sheet, but it will still be United who takes the spoils. Berbatov is due another goal and I think he’s more than capable of getting it against Stoke City. We’ve been denied a glimpse of Berbatov’s class in front of goal for too long. After a good performance in the Champions League, look for Nani to grab his second goal of the week on Sunday. The Portuguese winger already has four goals to his name this season and another would continue to prove what a U-turn he’s made in the past 12 months.

This is a must-win scenario for United. Gaining confidence for away fixtures is my biggest concern at the moment. This run of draws away from Old Trafford must come to an end; these are not the results of a title-contending club. And as for titles go, United cannot afford to lose anymore ground in the Premier League. We’re currently in fourth place behind Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal. There is a five-point gap between United and league leaders Chelsea, a gap which will likely widen on Saturday when Chelsea welcome Wolverhampton to Stamford Bridge. At the very least United must keep the gap at five points, and possibly even make up some ground in the title race should Wolves manage an unthinkable upset at Stamford Bridge. Falling further behind Chelsea, though not the end of the world, would be unacceptable after an unconvincing start to the season.

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You can follow Kyle on Twitter at KDill_MUFC.

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