The October international break has ended and Manchester United resume their season on Saturday when they host Stoke City in a Premier League match at Old Trafford. During this same fixture last season in January, the Red Devils comfortably won 2-0 after Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and Dimitar Berbatov each converted penalties. In the reverse fixture at the Britannia, the Potters were able to hold United to a 1-1 draw. Stoke have not won at the 'Theatre of Dreams' since 1976.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend sitting second in the league table with fifteen points from seven matches. They trail Chelsea by four points. Just prior to the break, Sir Alex Ferguson's side traveled to Newcastle United and they impressively won 3-0. In European competition, United currently top their group with the maximum six points from their initial two UEFA Champions League ties.
Team News: Central-defenders Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones, and Chris Smalling are all unavailable -- although the latter is nearing a return. There is speculation that goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard is carrying a knock but it's not certain whether he is available or not to feature. Ashley Young has been declared fully fit. (Full Team News Report)
Form Guide: Stoke currently have eight points from seven matches and they sit twelfth in the league table. The fixture list for the Potters has been challenging thus far in the young season as they've already hosted Manchester City and Arsenal while they've also had to travel away to Chelsea and Liverpool. The only defeat from those difficult quartet of fixtures is a 0-1 defeat by the Blues at Stamford Bridge -- a game in which Ashley Cole won it late. Stoke's most recent match was a 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield.
Team News: Glenn Whelan and Michael Owen (shocking!) are doubts.
United: As always, this is a bit of challenge but I can discuss at least, position-by-position, who is likely to start and who is likely to be rested. The recent international break likely will factor into some selection choices.
In goal, due to the physical approach that Stoke takes, Lindegaard seems to be a more logical choice than David de Gea. However, as mentioned in the team news portion of this preview, there are rumblings that Lindegaard is injured so it's not certain if he can start. In front of him, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans will start in central-defense as they are the only established first-choice players available in their position. With Smalling not quite at full fitness, that means Rafael is certain to start at right-back while Patrice Evra is Fergie's clear first-choice left-back.
Controlling the midfield battle shouldn't be much of an issue for United so look for them to play with two players in the middle in their usual 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish shape. In central-midfield, Paul Scholes is rested due to his retirement from international football and he'll likely be pulling the strings. The likes of Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick, and Darren Fletcher all featured twice in the past week for their respective nations so all of them are candidates to be rested. Carrick seems like the most probable partner for Scholes while Anderson certainly is in contention to start as well. Ryan Giggs is possible too but hopefully this doesn't happen...
Out wide, Nani and Antonio Valencia are in contention out wide to the right. In the past though, Fergie has shown caution with Valencia after international breaks due to his long travels from South America. On the left, Nani is possible if Valencia starts on the right. Young, Giggs, Shinji Kagawa, and Danny Welbeck are also candidates on the left flank. Up front, expect Robin van Persie as the lead striker with either Kagawa or Wayne Rooney in behind.
Stoke: Tony Pulis has named unchanged side for Stoke's past three matches. However, with Whelan in doubt for this match, he could be the one change. Here is the likely starting XI for the Potters in their 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 shape:
* Stoke's direct approach: Everyone and their mother knows that Stoke plays a direct style of football. In this same fixture last season, the Potters played even more direct than usual -- perhaps due to Pulis' instructions or because of United's firm grip of control in the match -- and I would anticipate much of the same on Saturday afternoon. The only question in their approach is whether they'll sit back in midfield and keep their lines compact when out of possession -- as they did last season at Old Trafford -- or whether they'll actively close down in the center of the park as they often do to great effect when facing Arsenal.
There may be question on what Pulis' approach will be when out of possession but when possession is won, it's quite clear what Stoke will look to do: (1) Route one to Crouch from Begovic and the back four or (2) when the ball is actually possessed by the central-midfielders, the ball will be quickly swung out wide to the feet of the wingers. From here, they'll simply look to whip in crosses. Defending well near the flanks will be a key for United as they'll need to close down as quickly as possible in order to choke off service.
* Win the knock-down: Typically, Stoke have a focal point in attack -- Crouch is this current side's pivot up front -- as they look to target this player with continual long balls. If the service is close enough to goal, then this target forward will obviously look to score. However, the battle that is possibly more important than the aerial duel between Crouch and his counterpart is probably the fight for the ball after the knock-down. In the past, Walters has played in behind the target forward but as of late, it's been Adam. The former Liverpool player is arguably being misused in this role, but beating him -- and also Walters and Kightly when he cuts inside from out wide -- to the ball will be key for United to cut out Stoke's attack. Adam can certainly provide a scare with long distance strikes from knock-downs but he can thread a through-ball from them too for the wide players when they make diagonal make runs into the box. If Owen is deemed fit enough to come off the bench, he could poach a goal as well from a knock-down.
* United need to retain the ball: Perhaps the best way to nullify Stoke's long-ball threat is by simply keeping possession of the ball. In this fixture last season, United had 75% of the possession and they were firmly in control due to Scholes and Carrick bossing the match (the two combined to complete 242 passes). Evans often stepped out of the back as well to create overloads in midfield and he contributed with 96 passes completed. Retaining the ball will obviously not allow Stoke the opportunity to ping long balls as often and long spells of possession while methodically moving the ball up the pitch can allow United to push Stoke back -- and further away from United's goal -- while keeping a structured shape.
* United's left-side vs. Stoke's right-side: The main piece of news from Fergie's press conference today was his announcement that Young is fully fit to feature. Perhaps this is telling when considering that Stoke attack more down the right side than any other team in the Premier League and also when considering that Young's partnership on the left with Evra is probably United's most balanced in terms of offensive and defensive responsibilities. While it still may be too soon for Young to start due to fitness reasons, it'll be important for whoever United's left-sided attacker is to track back and help Evra -- the Frenchman already has the propensity to being caught out. If it's Kagawa or Welbeck out wide to the left, they'll likely be looking to cut inside when United are in possession. However, when possession is lost, they could be out of position defensively in transitions and Stoke may be able to counter down their right side. If Young can't go yet, perhaps Nani on the left is the next best option just because while he does tend to drift inside when featured on the left flank, he doesn't do it nearly as much as Welbeck or Kagawa.
* Set-pieces: This one is obvious. Surprisingly, Whelan had been taking most of the set-pieces lately for Stoke despite having Adam in the side -- Fergie once claimed the latter was worth £10m solely for his outstanding corners. With Whelan a doubt, Adam will likely take over taking the set-pieces. If de Gea is in goal, they'll likely be some nervy moments on dead-ball situations. Rio and Evans will brunt the majority of the responsibility and it certainly would have been nice to have Smalling at right-back for not only a third stout defender on set-pieces, but also to defend against crosses at the far post when Stoke attack down their right side. United fans often joke how terrible we are from dead-ball situations. However, our five goals from corners this season tops the Premier League.
KO: 3:00pm BST, 10:00am EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: None (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.)
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Odds: Manchester United 2/7, Draw 4/1, Stoke City 10/1