*UPDATE: Here is the latest team news from Sir Alex Ferguson's pre-match press conference.
Manchester United will make the short trip to Stoke-on-Trent on Saturday night where they will clash with Stoke City FC in an English Premier League tie. Fortunately for United, it is not expected to be a cold night in Stoke -- therefore pundit Andy Gray likely won't anticipate any massive struggles for the in-form Reds. Since winning promotion in 2008, the Potters have made their home ground, Britannia Stadium, a difficult place for opponents. In their past eleven matches there, Stoke has only lost once. In the time since the home side's promotion, United is the only Premier League side with a 100% record versus Stoke -- which quite obviously would mean that United have won three straight matches at the Britannia. In this fixture last season, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) bagged a brace, the latter of which was an 86th minute winner. During the fixture at Old Trafford, United won by the same 2-1 scoreline with goals from Nani and Chicharito.
United come into the match top of the table of the Premier League with the maximum 15 points through five matches. During the past week, the Reds earned a 3-0 away victory over old rival Leeds United in a midweek Carling Cup clash while also defeating perennial title-contending rival Chelsea FC 3-1 in a league tie at Old Trafford on Sunday. With this Stoke match, United enter a stretch where they will play three matches in eight days prior to an upcoming international break -- this includes a midweek UEFA Champions League battle versus FC Basel and a league tie versus Norwich City.
Injuries are a bit of a concern for United at the moment, especially in defense. Center-back and captain Nemanja Vidic continues to be out with a calf strain as does right-back Rafael with a shoulder injury. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson revealed that versatile defender Chris Smalling is a "doubt" for this tie as well. In addition, midfielder Tom Cleverley is unavailable because of a leg injury suffered from the Bolton Wanderers match. After a rash challenge from Ashley Cole during last Sunday's Chelsea match, Chicharito is questionable also. Fergie is hopeful for the return of Rio Ferdinand for this match as the center-back has only appeared in two matches season due to a calf strain.
The Potters come into the match sitting 5th in the Premier League table -- a standing that few likely expect by season's end. However, they are currently competing in the Europa League after their run to the FA Cup final last season -- they impressively earned an away 1-1 draw with Dynamo Kiev on September 15. Three days after that, Stoke suffered a 4-0 defeat by Sunderland and then just two days after that match, they advanced in the Carling Cup after a penalty shoot-out victory over Tottenham Hotspur. The squad has been exerted recently but Stoke still present a threat to United. Already during this league season, they have earned a draw with Chelsea and a victory over Liverpool FC.
The major injury news for Stoke is the hamstring injury to Kenwyne Jones. The striker is unexpected to play after being substituted off just 12 minutes into the midweek tie versus Spurs. Ricardo Fuller is recovering from an achilles injury and it is possible that he returns in time for Saturday. Danny Higginbotham is out with an ACL injury.
Fergie will likely select his lineup while also keeping in mind United's upcoming ties versus FC Basel and Norwich City. In goal, David De Gea is expected as is Patrice Evra at left-back. If Ferdinand is fit for a return, he likely will start at center-back. In this scenario, either Jonny Evans or Phil Jones would be his partner. If Evans is chosen at center-back to partner Ferdinand, then either Jones or Fabio would be the likely selection options at right-back. If Jones is chosen to partner Ferdinand in the center, then Fabio is the likely right-back selection with Antonio Valencia a slight possibility. In the center of the park, Anderson is nearly certain to start and alongside him, either Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, or Ryan Giggs could feature as well. Out wide, Ashley Young is probable on the left flank while Nani is expected on the right flank. Up front, Wayne Rooney will start and his partner options include Danny Welbeck, Dimitar Berbatov, or Michael Owen.
For Stoke, Asmir Begovic is the No 1 but backup Thomas Sorensen has recently impressed. Ryan Shawcross is almost certain to start at center-back and he will be partnered by either Jonathan Woodgate or Matthew Upson. The center-backs are likely to be flanked by Roberth Huth on the right and Marc Wilson on the left. In the central-midfield, Rory Delap and Dean Whitehead are the most likely candidates but Wilson Palacios and Glenn Whelan are possible as well. Matthew Etherington is the anticipated left winger and Jermaine Pennant the right winger. Up front, record signing Peter Crouch will start and he will be partnered by either Jonathan Walters or Cameron Jerome.
* Dealing with Stoke's aerial threat: This perhaps will be David De Gea's toughest test yet as the United No 1. Much has been made of the few soft goals that the youngster allowed in the early stages of the season but since then, he has been very solid. Stoke present a unique challenge with their physicality and drastically direct play -- the Spaniard will have to show command and confidence in his box. Anytime the Potters are near goal from the touchline, Rory Delap will certainly use his trademark long throw-in to threaten United near their own goal. In nearly every dead ball situation, De Gea can expect to be tested -- he will have to be confident in his decision-making and be decisive to either come off of his line or to allow his defenders to fend off the aerial challenges.
In open play, Stoke generally do two things: (1) Swing it wide to their wingers [more on this later] or (2) bypass the midfield and hoof long-balls up to their center-forwards. Vidic did well last season to erase Crouch out of matches when the center-forward was still with Spurs. However, Vida will be absent for this one and whoever deputises for him, whether that be Evans or Jones, will need to win the majority of their aerial duels. For Ferdinand, this should not be a concern. Maybe just as importantly, United will have to be wary of the knock-downs and flick-ons from these aerial duels.
* Winning with width: One thing these two sides have in common is the use of their wingers as a primary creative outlet in attack. When Stoke is able to work the ball from the back to the attack, they generally end up getting the ball to Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant in the wide areas. From there, the wingers attempt to whip in crosses into the box for their center-forwards or to win throw-ins in attack for Delap's long-throw. United will dominate possession in this match, therefore, their full-backs will likely be getting forward to join the attack. If these full-backs are able to pin back the Stoke wingers, this will isolate Stoke's center-forwards and that will make it difficult for Stoke to generate any sort of build-up play. The United full-backs will also have to be careful not to get caught out and allow the Stoke wingers to get in behind them for the counterattack.
For United, Ashley Young and Nani are in tremendous form at the moment. Stoke often deploy four center-backs across the back and defend very narrowly. Thus, both United wingers may have time and space on the ball when they receive on the flanks. They will have to be intelligent with their decision making from there. If the Stoke wide defenders come out to close down their counterparts, the United wingers may find themselves in favorable one-on-one situations and in space.
* Keep the ball on the floor: United will surely dominate possession and they would do well to keep the ball on the deck. Stoke's game versus Norwich City in August was their first that they had the majority of possession since their promotion to the Premier League in 2008. If Danny Welbeck starts with Wayne Rooney up top, United can try to emulate the fast and fluid 4-4-2 they have effectively used this season -- it is epitomized by quick one and two touch passing along with intelligent off-the-ball movement. This could be the most effective way to break down a well-organized, narrow, and compact Stoke defense. If Dimitar Berbatov gets the start, his range of passing and vision could be vital in piercing the Stoke defense as well. The Bulgarian striker did well in the Leeds match to drop deep between the lines and to split the defense with killer passes through the channels.
Odds: Stoke City 11/2, Draw 11/4, Manchester United 8/15
Prediction: Stoke City 1-2 Manchester United