Manchester United return to Old Trafford after a week of warm-weather training in Dubai for a Monday evening matchup with struggling Stoke City. A busy December ran José Mourinho’s Reds ragged, with nine matches that month and an especially grueling festive period of five games in a fortnight. To recover from that grind, the manager whisked his squad off to the luxurious Nad Al Sheba complex in Dubai for some rejuvenating Vitamin D.
This type of winter getaway to sunny climes has grown popular with Premier League managers. Mourinho is no exception — and he spoke in glowing terms about the trip’s value to his tired players: “It was very good. The facilities were unbelievable. Unbelievable conditions to work, nice weather, and three days of really good training.”
Now back in Manchester, the United manager should have close to a full-strength side at his disposal for Stoke’s visit. Zlatan Ibrahimović and Eric Bailly remain on the shelf until at least the end of the month, but the other banged-up players all took training in Dubai and could be set for a return on Monday.
Ashley Young will finish up his three-match suspension, with Luke Shaw likely to continue at left back for at least one more game. On the right, Antonio Valencia may start for the first time since his December hamstring injury. If Valencia still can’t go, either Matteo Darmian or Victor Lindelöf will fill in.
In midfield, Marouane Fellaini put in a brief appearance against Derby County last week and should be nearing full-strength after the Dubai trip. He won’t dislodge Paul Pogba or Nemanja Matić from the starting eleven, but can once again slot in as Mourinho’s favorite tactical substitute. Expect a lot of second-half minutes from the Belgian in the coming weeks.
One player seemingly out of Mourinho’s good graces is Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Reports suggest United are dangling the attacking midfielder as a makeweight for Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez, casting even more doubt on his future at the club.
While Manchester United jetted off to sunny Dubai, Stoke City spent much of the week under a dark cloud.
The Potters dismissed manager Mark Hughes a week ago after a stunning upset to League Two’s Coventry City. That loss marked the final straw for Peter Coates and the Stoke board, who had seen Hughes lead his squad to six losses in eight matches. Worst of all, Stoke currently sit in the relegation zone, with their decade-long Premier League stay in serious jeopardy.
Initially, Stoke hoped to have a new manager in place for Monday’s visit to Old Trafford, but that now looks unlikely. Espanyol boss Quique Sanchez Flores has emerged as the strong frontrunner for the post, but both sides continue to haggle over the finer points of a potential agreement. Flores would be a solid choice, having both Premier League experience (Watford in 2015/16) and the 2010 UEFA Cup with Atletico Madrid.
In the interim, first-team coach Eddie Niedzwiecki takes charge of the Stoke side with assistance from U-18 boss Kevin Russell. The latter minced no words about the difficult situation that the club finds itself in: “The club is in a bad position at the moment and needs to get up the table.”
But any Stoke City renaissance should not start at Old Trafford. Russell acknowledged that his club’s fight for Premier League survival will not be won or lost on Monday. “I’m sure the sunshine will do them good, but we can’t focus on Manchester United,” he said. “We’ve got to get ourselves right. If we can get on the front foot and get a couple of results, then we’ll be on our way.”
Back in September, Stoke ended United’s 100% start to the season with a 2-2 draw at the Britannia. On that day, Eric Choupo-Moting struck twice for the Potters and condemned Mourinho’s men to a disappointing result. On Monday, United’s defenders must keep a close eye on him to prevent a repeat performance.
Manchester United have no excuse for taking anything but three points from manager-less Stoke City. After this week’s Dubai training camp helped the players recover both physically and mentally, we should see United at their best against the Potters.
Three straight road matches await after this — including tough trips to Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur — so the Reds must make no mistake in this one. With a goal differential of -24, Stoke players are accustomed to being on the wrong end of a lopsided scoreline. Let’s give them another one on Monday.