Sunday could see an Old Trafford legend have the final nail hammered into his coffin by his former club. Manchester United vs Stoke City kicks off at lunchtime, and Mark Hughes has come under increasing pressure following a poor start to the season. The man known as Sparky was revered by the Stretford End during two spells with United. In spite of this, the fans will not want their team to show their former idol any mercy.
United were comfortably beaten 2-0 at the Brittania Stadium on Boxing Day. The manner of that defeat served to increase the pressure on then-manager Louis van Gaal. February’s return fixture at Old Trafford saw the Red Devils gain a measure of revenge. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Jesse Lingard and a spectacular strike by Anthony Martial sealed a 3-0 victory.
Manchester United have had a mixed start to the season. After winning their opening three games, they then lost three in a row. Two of these were in the Premier League, at home to Manchester City and away to Watford. There was also a poor Europa League defeat in Rotterdam at the hands of Feyenoord.
United have recovered well since this blip. A potential banana skin of a fixture away to Northampton Town was negotiated with minimum of fuss, winning 3-1. Champions Leicester City were then dispatched 4-1 at Old Trafford last weekend to get their league campaign back on track. Thursday’s win over FC Zorya may not have been pretty, but a 1-0 scoreline bagged their first European points.
Stoke are a side who look short on confidence, and have yet to win in the Premier League this season. The most alarming thing for their fans is the manner of some of their defeats. An opening day 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough was followed by four straight losses. Even worse is the fact that in three of these games, they conceded four goals. For a side who have become notorious for being difficult to beat, this must be a real concern. Their only victory this term was in the League Cup against League Two side Stevenage.
The Brittania was always regarded as a bit of a fortress. So far both Tottenham and Manchester City have thrashed them at home. Last weekend they drew 1-1 with West Bromwich Albion, a game they were winning before Salomón Rondón’s injury time equaliser. They currently lie in 19th place, and will not be wanting to stay there.
Team News – United
Luke Shaw was sent home from training in midweek after feeling unwell. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has not featured since being substituted at half-time in the defeat to City. A thigh injury has kept him out but both he and Shaw have returned to training, and may be considered for selection. The only player unavailable through injury is Phil Jones. He will be sidelined for a month following a knee injury, and has yet to feature this season.
Wayne Rooney has started the last two games on the bench. Despite the fact that he inadvertently set up Zlatan Ibrahimović’s winner against Zorya, he seems likely to remain there. The impressive form of Juan Mata against Leicester seemed to provide United with more urgency. He capped this with a superb goal, and dropping him would not be a popular decision with the fans.
José Mourinho juggled his squad against the Ukrainians in midweek Daley Blind and Ander Herrera were rested, and look set to return at the expense of Marouane Fellaini and Marcos Rojo. Another selection headache for the United manager will be who to play at right back. Tim Fosu-Mensah had a good game, but it seems likely that Antonio Valenica will return to the side on Sunday. Anthony Martial made his first appearance since suffering a head injury against Watford. Given that his form so far has been unspectacular, it’s hard to see him edging out Marcus Rashford.
Likely Line-up: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Bailley, Blind, Pogba, Herrera, Mata, Lingard, Rashford, Ibrahimović.
Team News – Stoke
If Mark Hughes didn’t have enough worries regarding the form of his side, he also has several injuries to contend with. Midfielder Joe Allen has been his best player since his summer move from Liverpool, but could be set to miss out. He complained of tightness in his hamstrings following the game with West Brom. He could be replaced by Gianelli Imbula.
First choice goalkeeper Jack Butland has yet to start a game this season following ankle surgery. He faces at least another month on the sidelines. Shay Given, Butland’s replacement for much of the season was dropped last weekend after some unconvincing displays. He was replaced by Lee Grant, on loan from Derby County, who impressed on his debut. Another ankle victim is Jon Walters, who will face a late fitness test to determine whether he will be involved.
Striker Wilfried Bony is yet to find his feet, or the net, since joining on loan from Manchester City. He was replaced after an hour last weekend by Peter Crouch. Marko Arnautović, Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan Krkić (also benched last weekend) have also yet to find their form this campaign. All three were key players last season and if they can click into gear this weekend, they are more than capable of causing an upset.
Likely Line-up: Grant, Johnson, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Pieters, Krkić, Whelan, Shaqiri, Imbula, Arnautović, Bony.
The statistics don’t make good reading for Stoke fans. Their side has never collected a single point at Old Trafford since their promotion in 2008. In fact their last positive result at the ground was 40 years ago, a 1-0 win in 1976. If Stoke don’t rediscover their form soon, it looks like being a long season for them. If they do it this weekend, it could spark their season into life.
This fixture is one that United boss Mourinho is expected to win, by both board and fans. United’s inconsistent form this season can be excused in certain areas. Failure to win a home match against a side at the bottom of the table will raise more than a few eyebrows.